A Russian court in Moscow on Monday ruled that Meta, the corporate owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is guilty of “extremist activities,” a designation that paves the way for severe curtailment of the company’s presence there.
A representative from the Russian prosecutor general’s office told the state-owned news agency TASS that Facebook and Instagram are guilty of creating an “alternative reality” that incites hatred against Russians.
The ban, which goes into effect immediately, applies only to Facebook and Instagram, not WhatsApp. Russia had already blocked access to the platforms earlier this month, but Monday’s ruling offers legal cover for their continued ban.
Anton Gorelkin, who sits on an information policy committee in the Russian national legislature, told TASS that Meta could curry favor ― and seek an appeal ― if it allows Russian media and politicians to return to the platforms.
Meta restricted access to Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik after the country went to war in Ukraine, blunting the spread of state-backed propaganda there.
Soon after, Meta also relaxed its hate speech rules, allowing for calls of violence against Russian soldiers and politicians (but not civilians) in the context of the war. The company offered “Death to the Russian invaders” as an example of speech that was banned before but is now condoned.
The state prosecutor’s office responded by accusing Meta of permitting “terrorist activity” and “inciting hatred and enmity towards the citizens of the Russian Federation,” and sought to label the company an “extremist organization,” according to a translation by Reuters.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp had 7.5 million, 50.8 million and 67 million users in Russia last year, respectively, the research group Insider Intelligence told CNBC.
It’s unclear how Russian authorities might wield the new designation. Human rights advocates fear it could be used to prosecute or pressure anyone who maintains a Facebook or Instagram profile.
Pavel Chikov, founder of the human rights group Agora, told Meduza.io, an independent, English-language Russian news outlet based in Latvia, that Russian police officers might confiscate antiwar protesters’ phones and look for the apps, for example.
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