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Russia plans to limit Instagram and could label Meta an extremist group

A picture taken in Moscow in March 2018 shows the Russian language version of Facebook's about page, featuring the face of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
MLADEN ANTONOV
/
AFP via Getty Images
A picture taken in Moscow in March 2018 shows the Russian language version of Facebook's about page, featuring the face of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Updated March 11, 2022 at 7:25 PM ET

Russian authorities called for Facebook parent Meta to be labeled an extremist organization and said they would restrict access to its Instagram app after the social media giant said it would temporarily permit some calls for violence against Russian soldiers.

Russian regulators already have banned access to Facebook in the country. Now, Russia's prosecutor general's office is seeking the "extremist" designation because of what it terms "illegal calls for the murder of Russian nationals" by Meta employees.

In launching their criminal probe, prosecutors also accused Instagram of serving as a platform for organizing "riots, accompanied by violence."

Communications regulator Roskomnadzor said that access to Instagram would be restricted beginning on Monday in Russia. It said "messages shared on Instagram encourage and provoke violent actions toward Russians."

WhatsApp, a Meta-owned messaging app popular in Russia, was not mentioned in the government statements.

On Friday, Instagram head Adam Mosseri said on Twitter that blocking the app "will cut 80 million in Russia off from one another, and from the rest of the world." He said about 80% of users in Russia follow an Instagram account of someone outside the country.

In recent years Russian authorities have expanded the extremist designation beyond terrorist groups like al-Qaida to include Jehovah's Witnesses, the political movement of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and other groups.

The prosecutor general's case comes after Meta made an unusual exception on Thursday to its rules prohibiting most overtly violent speech. The company initially said it would permit Facebook and Instagram posts calling for violence against Russian soldiers from users in Ukraine, Russia and some other countries in eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Users in Russia, Ukraine and Poland would also temporarily be allowed to call for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. The company said it will still remove calls for violence against Russian civilians.

But on Friday, Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said the exception to its policies would apply only "in Ukraine itself."

"Our policies are focused on protecting people's rights to speech as an expression of self-defense in reaction to a military invasion of their country," he said in a statement posted to Twitter. "The fact is, if we applied our standard content policies without any adjustments we would now be removing content from ordinary Ukrainians expressing their resistance and fury at the invading military forces, which would rightly be viewed as unacceptable."

He added, "we have no quarrel with the Russian people," and said the company "will not tolerate Russophobia or any kind of discrimination, harassment or violence towards Russians on our platform."

The policy changes were first reported by Reuters on Thursday under a headline that said the company would allow "calls for violence against Russians," raising broad alarm on social media. The news outlet later changed its headline to clarify that it applied to threats against "Russian invaders."

Almost 14,000 Russian antiwar protesters have been arrested in the past two weeks as the Kremlin has criminalized public statements with words like "war" and "invasion."

Editor's note: Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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