The Russian government has now said it is limiting access to Instagram. It is the latest state restriction targeting mainstream foreign technology platforms since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia blames a change in its hate speech policy by Meta, previously reported by Reuters, for censoring Instagram.
But the move comes as Putin continues to tighten his grip on the digital information sphere to try to prevent Russian citizens from circumventing state propaganda and accessing uncensored information about the war — such as by passing a new law that would restrict independent reporting of the war. Russian military (which comes with the threat of up to 15 years in prison for those who spread “false” information).
In a statement announcing the block on Instagram, the Russian government said its national internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, will “restrict” access to Meta’s photo-sharing site — writing that the platform is being used to “display informational materials with calls to commit acts of violence” ( translated with machine translation) against Russian civilians, including soldiers:
“Based on the requirement of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, access to the social network Instagram (owned by Meta Platforms, Inc.) in the Russian Federation will be restricted.
“The social network Instagram is distributing information materials calling for violence against citizens of the Russian Federation, including military personnel.”
At the time of writing, a source in Russia said the Instagram app is still accessible to them, but noted that it “usually takes a few days for all mobile operators and ISPs to block it on their end”.
Facebook and Twitter had already faced restrictions in Russia, but Instagram, which is hugely popular in the country, had not been named as a target for restrictions until now.
Instagram has an estimated 60 million users in Russia.
Facebook was hit with a “partial” restriction in Russia on February 25, after the platform restricted access to some state-affiliated media.
Around the same time, Twitter users also reported problems accessing the site — and the company later confirmed reports of “difficulties” for Russian users accessing the service, saying it was in the process of restoring full access.
Twitter has since launched a dedicated Tor-ui service — a solution for anyone looking to get around state censorship to access their network. (Facebook has had a Tor service since 2014.)
Russia’s action against Instagram follows a specific policy shift by Meta — which has come under increased human rights criticism (including from the UN).
The Reuters news agency reported earlier today that it had received confirmation that Meta was temporarily allowing users in some countries to incite violence against some Russians in light of the war in Ukraine — suspending standard hate speech rules in this context.
“As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have temporarily taken into account forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules, such as violent statements such as ‘death to the Russian invaders,'” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. to Reuters. “We will still not allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians.”
Internal emails to moderators reviewed by the news agency also specified that death threats against Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would also be allowed unless the threats were also directed at others and/or provided additional “indicators of credibility” (such as location and method), it also reported.
Roskomnadzor’s statement announcing the Instagram restrictions cites a Meta spokesperson’s confirmation of the change in the hate speech policy — identifying the Russian government by name, Andy Stone — by claiming that the policy change will allow residents of a number of countries to “post information calling for violence against Russian civilians, including military personnel”.
It’s not clear whether the messaging app WhatsApp – another platform from Meta – will face similar limitations.
WhatsApp declined to comment. But some reports have suggested that it is treated differently by the Russian authorities because it is not a public social network.
However, the Russian government is certainly going further in one respect: In a parallel move, it announced today that a state commission of inquiry has opened a criminal case against Meta and Meta employees in Russia — apparently using sweeping counter-terror laws to designate the company. as an “extremist organization” (following what it describes as “illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation”).
“These actions contain evidence of crimes under Articles 280 and 205.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation – (public calls to extremist activities; aiding terrorist activities),” Russia’s Commission of Inquiry wrote today regarding the policy change announced. makes calls to violence possible.
“As part of the criminal case, necessary investigative measures are being taken to legally assess the actions of Andy Stone and other employees of the US company,” it added.
Russia has long had draconian “anti-terror” laws that can target critics of Putin’s regime to encourage self-censorship.
A 2016 update expanded the penalties available, with the maximum penalty for “extremism” — a charge the Guardian reported at the time was increasingly being brought against social media users who criticized Russia’s involvement in Ukraine — being jacked up from four to eight years in prison, for example.
It now appears that Russia is planning to file an extremism charge against US-based Stone — and possibly other unnamed Meta employees.
Clearly, Meta employees who are located in Russia are most at risk of arrest and detention – underscoring the very real risks on the ground that can be associated with centralized policy decisions applied top-down by major global platforms. .
Meta and Instagram have been approached for comment on the latest developments.
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