Russia has moved to block Instagram after its parent company, Meta, said it would allow calls for violence against Vladimir Putin and Russian soldiers involved in the invasion of Ukraine to appear on the social media platform.
Russian prosecutors demanded that access to Instagram be blocked on Friday after media reports of the relaxation of its policies on hate speech related to the war.
Russia’s general prosecutor’s office said in a statement it had moved to recognise Meta as an “extremist organisation and ban its activities on the territory of Russia”, claiming the platform had also been used to incite “mass riots accompanied by violence”. Several Russian regional governors also deleted their Instagram accounts on Friday, the RIA Novosti state news agency reported.
Meta is also the parent company of Facebook, which the Russian government blocked access to last week, and WhatsApp, one of Russia’s most popular messaging applications. It is not yet clear if WhatsApp will also be targeted by government regulators.
The crackdown on the social media giant will further limit most Russians’ access to outside information on the war, increasing the influence of state media. Putin last week signed off on new legislation that threatens Russians accused of sharing “fake information” about the war to up to 15 years in prison.
Meta’s decision to allow speech targeting Russians is part of an extraordinary wave of corporate activism over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with hundreds of brands exiting the Russian market. The invasion has led to thousands of deaths and created a refugee crisis in Europe with more than 2 million people fleeing Ukraine after just two weeks of war.
On Friday evening, Meta’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said the company’s changes on speech would only apply in Ukraine itself. He that the policies were “focused on protecting people’s rights to speech as an expression of self-defence in reaction to a military invasion of their country.” He said the company had “no quarrel with the Russian people” and there was not a change on hate speech “as far as the Russian people are concerned”. He said the changes were temporary and the situation would be kept under review.
“As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine we have temporarily made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders’. We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians,” a Meta spokesperson said in an earlier statement, according to Reuters.
In an email recently sent to moderators, Meta highlighted a change in its hate speech policy pertaining both to Russian soldiers and to Russians in the context of the invasion, Reuters reported.
“We are issuing a spirit-of-the-policy allowance to allow T1 violent speech that would otherwise be removed under the hate speech policy when: (a) targeting Russian soldiers, except prisoners of war, or (b) targeting Russians where it’s clear that the context is the Russian invasion of Ukraine (eg content mentions the invasion, self-defence, etc),” it said in the email.