A Russian court has banned Facebook and Instagram in the country, labelling its parent company Meta as “extremist” amid the Kremlin’s sweeping crackdown on western social media giants.
Access to Facebook and Instagram had already been restricted earlier this month after Meta confirmed it was relaxing its policies on hate speech towards Russian soldiers and Vladimir Putin in relation to the country’s war in Ukraine. Meta later said the laxer rules would only apply to people posting from inside Ukraine.
The court in Moscow said that Facebook and Instagram –both of which are widely used among Russians – were “carrying out extremist activities”. But it said that Meta’s WhatsApp messenger service would not be prohibited because it “was means of communication, not a source of information”.
During Monday’s hearing in Moscow, Russia’s FSB security service accused Meta of creating an “alternative reality” in which “hatred for the Russians was kindled”.
“The activities of the Meta organisation are directed against Russia and its armed forces,” FSB representative Igor Kovalevsky told the court, the Russian state news agency TASS reported.
Previously, groups such as the Taliban, Jehovah’s Witnesses and an organisation led by the jailed Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny have been targeted under the same extremism law.
Russian prosecutors said in court they would not seek to charge Russian citizens and organisations that access the two banned platforms, as hundreds of thousands of Russians have sought to circumvent the social media ban using a VPN.
“The use of Meta’s products by individuals and legal entities should not be considered as participation in extremist activities,” Kovalevsky told the court on Monday. “Individuals will not be held liable for using Meta’s services,” he added.
It was not immediately clear if Russians and foreign companies that purchase ads on Facebook and Instagram could be prosecuted under the Russian law of “financing an extremist organisation”.
According to TASS, Meta’s lawyer, Victoria Shagina had said in court that the corporation opposed any type of Russophobia and was not carrying out extremist activities.
The move to label Meta as “extremist” comes as Russia continues its unprecedented crackdown on protesters, independent news outlets and foreign social media networks.
Russian parliament earlier this month passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military.
“Since the start of the special operation in Ukraine, the authorities have sought to fully control the information sphere in the country. We should be prepared for more censorship,” said Alexander Isavnin, a Russian internet privacy advocate and member of the Pirate Party of Russia.
“The move to ban Meta is also a final warning sign to YouTube, the last major remaining western platform in the country,” Isavnin added, pointing to the recent criticism YouTube received from Russia’s communications regulator and politicians.
Russia’s communication watchdog last Friday slammed YouTube for engaging in acts “of a terrorist nature” by allowing ads on the video-sharing platform to be used that could “harm Russian citizens”.
“The actions of the YouTube administration are of a terrorist nature and threaten the life and health of Russian citizens,” the regulator said in a statement.