Russia moves to block Instagram after Meta relaxes hate speech rules

Russia's communications and media regulator said Friday it's restricting national access to Instagram after its parent company, Meta Platforms, changed its hate speech rules to allow users to call for violence against Russians in the context of the war with Ukraine.

YouTube also blocks Russian-funded media globally

This photo shows the mobile phone app logos for, from left, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, all owned by Meta. Russia's communications and media regulator said on Friday it's restricting national access to Instagram after its parent company, Meta Platforms, changed its hate speech rules to allow users to call for violence against Russian soldiers involved in the invasion of Ukraine. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

Russia's communications and media regulator says it's restricting national access to Instagram, claiming the platform is spreading "calls to commit violent acts against Russian citizens, including military personnel."

The regulator, called Roskomnadzor, took the step on Friday as Russia pressed ahead with its invasion of Ukraine. It said the restrictions go into effect March 14.

Earlier on Friday, Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, said in a statement tweeted by its spokesperson, Andy Stone, that it had "made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules on violent speech, such as 'death to the Russian invaders.'"

The statement stressed that the company "still won't allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians."

Meanwhile, Russia opened a criminal case against Facebook's parent, Meta Platforms, on Friday and moved to designate it as an "extremist organization" after the social network changed its hate speech rules.

Prosecutors asked a Russian court to prohibit the company's activities in Russia, Interfax reported.

"A criminal case has been initiated ... in connection with illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation by employees of the American company Meta, which owns the social networks Facebook and Instagram," Russia's Investigative Committee said.

The committee reports directly to President Vladimir Putin. It was not immediately clear what the consequences of the criminal case might be.

Meta Global Affairs president Nick Clegg responded after the Russian government action with a Twitter statement saying that the company aimed to protect rights to speech as an expression of self-defence reacting to the invasion of Ukraine and that the policy applied only to Ukraine.

"If we applied our standard content policies without any adjustments, we would now be removing content from ordinary Ukrainians expressing their resistance and fury at the invading military forces, which would rightly be viewed as unacceptable," he wrote.

"We have no quarrel with the Russian people. There is no change at all in our policies on hate speech as far as the Russian people are concerned."

Russia cracks down on social media

Russia has for more than a year been striving to curb the influence of U.S. tech giants, including Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Twitter, repeatedly fining them for allowing what it deems to be illegal content.

But the invasion of Ukraine — met by a storm of international condemnation and unprecedented sanctions — has sharply raised the stakes in the information war.

Social media provide an opportunity for dissent against Putin's line — loyally followed by the tightly controlled state media — that Moscow was forced to launch its "special military operation" to defend Russian-speakers in Ukraine against genocide and to demilitarize and "denazify" the country.

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The Investigative Committee said Facebook's move could violate articles of Russian criminal law against public calls for extremist activities.

"Such actions of the [Meta] company's management not only form an idea that terrorist activity is permissible, but are aimed at inciting hatred and enmity toward the citizens of the Russian Federation," the state prosecutor's office said.

Internal Meta emails viewed by Reuters showed that the U.S. company had temporarily allowed posts that call for the death of Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally.

"We hope it is not true because if it is true then it will mean that there will have to be the most decisive measures to end the activities of this company," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

The United Nations human rights office said the potential change in Facebook policy was "concerning."

YouTube also announced on Friday that it has begun blocking access globally to channels associated with Russian state-funded media. It had previously blocked them — specifically RT and Sputnik — across Europe.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, announced the move in a Twitter post and said that while the change is effective immediately, "we expect our systems to take time to ramp up."

YouTube also said it was now removing content about Russia's invasion of Ukraine that violates its policy that "minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent events." The Kremlin refers to the invasion as a "special military operation" and not a war.

YouTube previously paused ads in Russia. Now, it is extending that to all of the ways it makes money on the platform in Russia.

Last week, Russia said it was banning Facebook in the country in response to what it said were restrictions of access to Russian media on the platform. The statement from the prosecutor's office said the state communications regulator would now also restrict access to Instagram.

Instagram is a favoured tool of jailed Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, who used it in a message posted via his lawyers and supporters on Friday to call for Russians to join protests against the Ukraine war and "mad maniac Putin" this weekend.

WhatsApp will not be affected by the legal moves, Russia's RIA news agency cited a source as saying, because the messaging app is considered a means of communication, not a way to post information.

With files from Reuters