Russia has launched a criminal inquiry into Meta in connection with death threats on Facebook

On Friday, Russia filed a criminal complaint against Facebook's parent company, Meta Platforms, after the social network amended its hate speech policies to enable users to call for 'death to the Russian invaders' in the context of Ukraine's war.

Russian authorities petitioned a court to label the U.S. tech giant a "extremist group," and the communications regulator said it was suspending Meta's Instagram access.

"A criminal case has been opened... in connection with illegal calls for murder and violence against Russian Federation residents by workers of the American firm Meta, which owns the social networks Facebook and Instagram," Russia's Investigative Committee stated.

President Vladimir Putin receives direct updates from the committee. The ramifications of the criminal case were not immediately evident.

In response to a request from Reuters, Meta had no immediate comment.

Two weeks into Russia's war in Ukraine, a Meta representative said on Thursday that the firm had temporarily relaxed its rules on political speech, permitting messages like "death to the Russian invaders," but not demands for violence against Russian civilians.

Meta stated that the temporary adjustment was intended to allow for types of political expression that would ordinarily be prohibited under company regulations. Its governing board stated on Friday that it is closely monitoring the conflict in Ukraine and how Meta is responding to it.

Internal Meta emails obtained by Reuters revealed that the US corporation had briefly permitted posts calling for the assassination of Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

"We hope that is not true because if it is real, it will imply that the most decisive steps will have to be taken to halt the activity of this firm," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Following Russia's declaration, Meta's head of worldwide affairs, Nick Clegg, stated that the company's adjustments to speech in the context of Russia's invasion of Ukraine will only apply within Ukraine.

In a statement issued on Friday, he stated that the measures were "centered on defending people's rights to free expression as an expression of self-defense in response to a military invasion of their nation."

Clegg stated that the company has "no beef with the Russian people" and that there has been no change in hate speech "as far as the Russian people are concerned." He stated that the modifications were only temporary and that the issue would be monitored.

Information warfare

For more than a year, Russia has been attempting to limit the reach of U.S. tech behemoths such as Alphabet's Google and Twitter, routinely fining them for enabling what it considers unlawful information.

However, the invasion of Ukraine, which was met with a storm of international condemnation and severe sanctions, has dramatically increased the stakes in the propaganda battle.

Social media allow for criticism against Putin's position, which is faithfully adopted by the tightly controlled state media, that Moscow was forced to begin its "special military operation" to defend Russian-speaking Ukrainians from genocide and to demilitarise and "denazify" the country.

According to the Investigative Committee, the Facebook move may breach sections of Russian criminal legislation prohibiting public incitement for terrorist acts.

"Such activities by the (Meta) company's management not only create the impression that terrorist behavior is legitimate, but are also intended to incite hatred and animosity towards Russian Federation citizens," the state prosecutor's office said.

It stated that it has applied to a court to have Meta recognized as an extremist organization and its operations in Russia prohibited.

The United Nations Human Rights Office expressed concern over the prospective change in Facebook policy.

"It is a really worrying problem because there is a possibility that it may generate, incite, and allow hate speech directed at Russians in general," said spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell.

According to researcher Insider Intelligence, Meta's Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp services are all popular in Russia, with 7.5 million, 50.8 million, and 67 million users correspondingly last year.

Russia announced last week that it will ban Facebook in the nation in reaction to what it claimed were limits on access to Russian media on the platform.

On Friday, the communications regulator said that it was also banning access to Instagram.

Instagram is a favorite weapon of imprisoned Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who used it in a letter sent to his attorneys and supporters on Friday to urge Russians to join rallies this weekend against the Ukraine war and "crazy maniac Putin."

WhatsApp will be unaffected by the legal actions, according to a source quoted by Russia's RIA news agency, because the messaging software is regarded a method of conversation rather than a mechanism to submit material.

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