Russia announced Friday that it intends to place a nationwide ban on Instagram after reports that Meta, the parent company formerly known as Facebook, will temporarily allow users in certain countries to make open calls for violence against President Vladimir Putin and Russian troops. “On the basis of a demand by the general prosecutor’s office, access to Instagram… will be limited on the territory of the Russian Federation,” Russia’s state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, said in a statement. Meta changed its community standards, as first reported by Reuters Thursday, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to temporarily allow forms of political expression that would otherwise violate Facebook and Instagram’s rules around violent speech. According to Reuters, the change is applicable only to users in 12 European and Western Asian countries, including Russia itself. In a statementMeta spokesperson Andy Stone said the company will allow posts “such as ‘death to the Russian invaders,’” and clarified that its platforms still forbid any violent language directed at Russian civilians.
Russia’s retaliatory move was announced in a Friday court filing submitted by the Russian general prosecutor’s office that called for Meta to be designated as an “extremist organization,” according to Russian state media outlet TASS. The general prosecutor’s office reportedly justified the Instagram ban, which will take effect on March 14, by claiming that the app is being used to incite violence and mass riots. Contrary to Meta’s revised policy, Russian officials have claimed Meta is allowing “illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation,” and that the US tech giant is helping incite “terrorist activity,” per Reuters. A number of regional governors in the country have reportedly deleted their Instagram pages in protest.
The ban on Instagram — an extremely popular platform in Russia, with more than 60 million users in the country, according to Statista — comes as Russia escalates its control over information being disseminated about its violent invasion into Ukraine. Last week, the Russian Federal Assembly passed a law stating that those who spread “fake news” about the Russian military, including anyone that refers to the war in Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion,” can face up to 15 years in prison. The government has blocked access to a number of independent Russian news sources, and more than 150 reporters are believed to have fled the country. Russian police have cracked down on Russian anti-war protests, arresting thousands, according to press-monitoring group OVD-Info. Russians are being isolated from the outside world, and banning Instagram only secludes them further.
Matthew Luxmoore, a Moscow-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal called Russia’s coming ban on Instagram “a massive move,” on Twitter Friday. While Russians are no strangers to government-imposed censorship, Instagram is so widely used by both everyday Russians and the country’s elite, that banning it was long considered a political third rail. The war in Ukraine has changed the Kremlin’s calculus, however; as Luxmoore said in his tweet, “This is something most people considered a very remote possibility even years hence, because there would be too much uproar. Many Russians are now so cowed that from the Kremlin’s perspective, anything goes. ” The ban will no doubt touch Russia’s large influencer industry, which includes the children of some prominent Russian oligarchs (some of whom have been using the platform to condemn Russia’s invasion, as Insider recently reported), as well as businesses that use the platform to market and sell products.
This episode also outlines the often controversial role tech giants play as information gatekeepers in global crises. Companies like Twitter and Meta property Facebook have long been scrutinized for inconsistent community guidelines, and for allowing misinformation to spread unchecked. This time, major social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook were quick to flag Russian state-affiliated news outlets, and Meta stopped running ads placed by Russian state media shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. Meta has made temporary exceptions to its rules on violent speech in the past; as Vice reported in 2021, the company allowed Iranian activists to post “Death to Khamenei,” during anti-government protests last year.
Earlier this week, Meta found itself in another controversy related to the war in Ukraine, as a Washington Post report found that pro-Russia rebel groups have used Facebook to recruit fighters and round-up donations for “equipment for soldiers on the front.” In response to the Mail article, which included remarks from a Facebook whistleblower who accused the platform of “knowingly aiding and abetting [Russia’s] information war, ”Meta spokeswoman Dani Lever denied the allegations and said that the social media conglomerate is “committed to complying with US sanctions laws and are treating these individuals and entities as we’re required to under US law.”
Last Friday, Facebook, Meta’s flagship property, was hit with an outright ban in Russia after the site’s moderators placed restrictions on Russian state media outlets. Meta is also the parent company of the messaging service WhatsApp, which has not yet been targeted by Russian authorities.
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