London (Reuters) – Russia opened a criminal case against Facebook’s parent Meta Platforms (FB.O) on Friday after the social network changed its hate speech rules to allow users to call for “death to the Russian invaders” in the context of the war with Ukraine.
Russian prosecutors asked a court to designate the U.S. tech giant as an “extremist organisation”, and the communications regulator said it was restricting access to Meta’s Instagram.
“A criminal case has been initiated … in connection with illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation by employees of the American company Meta, which owns the social networks Facebook and Instagram,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said.
The committee reports directly to President Vladimir Putin. It was not immediately clear what the consequences of the criminal case might be.
No comment was immediately available from Meta in response to a Reuters request.
Two weeks into Russia’s war in Ukraine, a Meta spokesperson said on Thursday the company had temporarily eased its rules for political speech, allowing posts such as “death to the Russian invaders,” although it would not allow calls for violence against Russian civilians.
Meta said the temporary change aimed to allow for forms of political expression that would normally violate its rules. Its oversight board said on Friday that it was closely following the war in Ukraine, and how Meta is responding.
Internal Meta emails seen by Reuters showed the U.S. company had temporarily allowed posts that call for the death of Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“We hope it is not true because if it is true then it will mean that there will have to be the most decisive measures to end the activities of this company,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia has for more than a year been striving to curb the influence of U.S. tech giants including Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google and Twitter (TWTR.N), repeatedly fining them for allowing what it deems to be illegal content.
But the invasion of Ukraine – met by a storm of international condemnation and unprecedented sanctions – has sharply raised the stakes in the information war.
Social media provide an opportunity for dissent against Putin’s line – loyally followed by the tightly controlled state media – that Moscow was forced to launch its “special military operation” to defend Russian-speakers in Ukraine against genocide and to demilitarise and “denazify” the country.
The Investigative Committee said the Facebook move could violate articles of the Russian criminal law against public calls for extremist activities.
“Such actions of the (Meta) company’s management not only form an idea that terrorist activity is permissible, but are aimed at inciting hatred and enmity towards the citizens of the Russian Federation,” the state prosecutor’s office said.
It said it had applied to a court to recognise Meta as an extremist organisation and prohibit its activities in Russia.
The United Nations human rights office said the potential change in Facebook policy was worrying.
“It is a very concerning issue because it does have a certain risk to generate and encourage and allow hate speech that is directed at Russians in general,” spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell said.
Meta’s Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp services are all popular in Russia, with 7.5 million, 50.8 million and 67 million users last year respectively, according to researcher Insider Intelligence.
Last week, Russia said it was banning Facebook in the country in response to what it said were restrictions of access to Russian media on the platform.
The communications regulator said on Friday it was also now restricting access to Instagram.
Instagram is a favoured tool of jailed Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, who used it in a message posted via his lawyers and supporters on Friday to call for Russians to join protests against the Ukraine war and “mad maniac Putin” this weekend.
WhatsApp will not be affected by the legal moves, Russia’s RIA news agency cited a source as saying, as the messaging app is considered a means of communication not a way to post information.