A Russian court in Moscow ruled on Monday that Meta, owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, was guilty of “extremist activities”, a designation that sets the stage for a severe reduction in the company’s presence there.
A representative of Russia’s attorney general’s office told state news agency TASS that Facebook and Instagram are guilty of creating an “alternative reality” that incites hatred against Russians.
The ban, which takes effect immediately, only applies to Facebook and Instagram, not WhatsApp. Russia already blocked access to the platforms earlier this month, but Monday’s decision provides legal cover for their continued ban.
Anton Gorelkin, who sits on an information policy committee in Russia’s National Legislative Assembly, told TASS that Meta could curry favor – and seek an appeal – if it allowed media and Russian politicians to return to the platforms.
Meta restricted access to Russian media such as RT and Sputnik after the country entered the war in Ukraine, curbing the dissemination of state-sponsored propaganda there.
Soon after, Meta also relaxed its rules on hate speech, allowing calls for violence against Russian soldiers and politicians (but not civilians) in the context of war. The company Free “Death to Russian invaders” as an example of speech that was previously banned but is now tolerated.
The prosecutor’s office responded by accusing Meta of enabling “terrorist activity” and “inciting hatred and hostility towards citizens of the Russian Federation”, and sought to label the company as a ‘extremist organization’, according to a Reuters translation.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp had 7.5 million, 50.8 million and 67 million users respectively in Russia last year, research group Insider Intelligence told CNBC.
It is unclear how Russian authorities might use the new designation. Human rights advocates fear it could be used to sue or pressure anyone with a Facebook or Instagram profile.
Pavel Chikov, founder of the human rights group Agora, told Meduza.io, an independent English-language Russian media outlet based in Latvia, that Russian police officers may confiscate the phones of anti-war protesters and search for the apps, for example. example.