The Russian government has now said it will limit access to Instagram. It’s the latest state restriction targeting mainstream foreign tech platforms since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia is blaming a hate speech policy change by Meta, reported earlier by Reuters, for censoring Instagram.
But the move comes as Putin continues to tighten his grip on the digital information sphere to try to prevent Russians citizens from bypassing state propaganda and accessing uncensored information on the war — such as by passing a new law criminalizing independent reporting on the Russian military (which comes with the threat of up to 15 years in prison for those spreading “false” information).
In a statement announcing the block on Instagram, the Russian government said its national Internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, will “restrict access” to the Meta-owned photo sharing site — writing that the platform is being used to distribute “informational materials containing calls to commit violent acts” (translated with machine translation) against Russian citizens, including soldiers:
“Based on the requirement of the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation, access to the Instagram social network (owned by Meta Platforms, Inc.) in the Russian Federation will be limited.
“The Instagram social network distributes informational materials containing calls to commit violent acts against citizens of the Russian Federation, including military personnel.”
At the time of writing, a source inside Russia said the Instagram app is still accessible for them — but they noted it “usually takes a couple of days til all mobile operators and internet providers block it on their side”.
Facebook and Twitter were already facing restrictions inside Russia — but Instagram, which is extremely popular in the country, had not been named as a target for restrictions until now.
Instagram is thought to have around 60M users in Russia.
Facebook was hit with a “partial” restriction inside Russia on February 25, after the platform limited access to a number of state-affiliated media outlets.
Around the same time, Twitter users also reported issues with accessing its site — and the company later confirmed reports of “difficulties” for Russia users to access the service, saying it was working to restore full access.
Twitter has since launched a dedicated Tor onion service — providing a workaround for anyone seeking to bypass state censorship to access its network. (Facebook has had a Tor service since 2014.)
Russia’s move against Instagram follows a specific policy shift by Meta — which has faced some wider criticism on human rights grounds (including from the UN).
The Reuters news agency reported earlier today it had obtained confirmation that Meta was temporarily allowing users in some countries to call for violence against some Russians in light of the Ukraine war — suspending its standard hate speech rules in this context.
“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’,” a Meta spokesperson told Reuters in a statement, adding: “We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians.”
Internal emails to moderators which the news agency reviewed also specified that death threats directed at Russia president Vladimir Putin or Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko would also be allowed — unless the threats also targeted others and/or contained additional “indicators of credibility” (such as location and method), it also reported.
Roskomnadzor’s statement announcing the Instagram restrictions cites confirmation by a Meta spokesperson of the change to the hate speech policy — who the Russian government identifies by name, Andy Stone — claiming the policy change allows residents of a number of countries to “post information containing calls for violence against Russian citizens, including military personnel”.
It’s not clear whether the messaging app WhatsApp — another Meta-owned platform — will face similar restrictions.
WhatsApp declined to comment. But some reports have suggested it is being treated differently by the Russian authorities as it’s not a public-facing social network.
The Russian government is certainly going further in one regard, though: In a parallel move today it announced that a state investigative committee has opened a criminal case against Meta and Meta employees in Russia — apparently leveraging sweeping anti-terror laws to designate the company an “extremist organization” (following what it describes as “illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation”).
“These actions contain signs of crimes under Articles 280 and 205.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation — (public calls for extremist activities; assistance in terrorist activities),” Russia’s investigative committee wrote today in reference to the policy change allowing calls for violence.
“As part of the criminal case, the necessary investigative measures are being carried out to give a legal evaluation to actions of Andy Stone and other employees of the American corporation,” it added.
Russia has long had draconian ‘anti-terror’ laws which can be aimed at critics of Putin’s regime to encourage self censorship.
A 2016 update expanded available penalties, with the maximum punishment for “extremism” — a charge the Guardian reported at the time had been increasingly brought against social media users critical of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine — getting cranked up from four to eight years in prison, for example.
It now appears that Russia intends to press a charge of extremism against US-based Stone — and potentially other unnamed Meta employees.
Clearly, Meta staff who are located in Russia face the greatest risk of arrest and detention — underlining yet again the very real on-the-ground risks that can be attached to centralized policy decisions being applied, top down, by major global platforms.
Meta and Instagram were approached for comment on the latest developments.