As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, another battle is being waged online between Russia and Facebook’s parent company Meta. The clash involves Russia trying to prevent the spread of information about the conflict among its citizens while Facebook/Meta is attempting to halt the spread of misinformation at the same time. This also involves Meta’s Family of Apps (FoA), which includes Instagram and WhatsApp. The situation escalated on Thursday with Meta modifying its rules against calls for violence on its platforms, saying it would allow them as long as they were directed at Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukrainian invasion. This reversal by Meta prompted the Russian Office of Prosecutor General to call for Meta to be labeled an extremist organization, and to ban all of its operations in Russia.
On Monday, Meta declared that the freedom it is extending users only applies to Ukrainian users who are discussing the invasion of Ukraine and that others are not free to make assassination threats against Vladimir Putin.
The spat between the social media company and nation state began in earnest a week ago when Facebook limited access on its platform to four state-affiliated media outlets. Facebook had been fact-checking posts and labeling them as state-owned media. Russia’s media regulator called the actions by Facebook a violation of Federal Law, and said it would “partially restrict access” to Facebook, according to CNBC. Following this move, Reuters reported that Meta had decided to allow for calls for violence against Russian leaders and soldiers involved in the conflict. “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 explained in a statement. The rules were applied to both Facebook and Instagram.
Reuters also gained access to internal Meta emails which clarified the policy, and stated, “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 (e.g., content mentions the invasion, self-defense, etc.),” it said in the email.
This move by Meta prodded Russian officials to announce they were seeking to label Meta and its subsidiaries an “extremist organization, according to Insider. Russia is also seeking an investigation into whether Meta’s modified platform rules were against Russian laws against “terrorist propaganda” and “inciting hatred.” If Russia goes through with its proposed action it would result in Instagram and WhatsApp no longer being accessible by Russian citizens. This could be disastrous for Russia, according to the Moscow Bureau Chief for the Financial Times. He states Instagram is the most popular social media platform in Russia and is used by a lot of small businesses. WhatsApp usage is also widespread, with 77 million Russian users, though indications are that the popular messaging app will be left alone for the time being.
The news of the crackdown on social media sites follows earlier reports of Russia taking drastic measures in response to western companies pulling out of Russia or refusing to offer their services in the country. The BBC has already resurrected shortwave radio broadcasts in Russia after its websites were blocked. Also, after companies including Microsoft, Nvidia, Apple, EA, and Oracle announced they would no longer offer their products in Russia, the country proposed a new law legalizing software piracy.
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