By Munsif Vengattil and Elizabeth Culliford: Reuters. Updated March 10, 2022 9:16 pm
Both Facebook and Instagram have announced that they will allow calls for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers.
Reuters reported that it has seen internal emails from Facebook that reflect this new temporary change in its “hate speech” policy.
The temporary allowance will also extend to posts calling for the assassination of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin or the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and applies to users in Russia (where Facebook is now banned) Ukraine, and Poland.
Meta Platforms will allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion, according to internal emails seen by Reuters on Thursday, in a temporary change to its hate speech policy.
The social media company is also temporarily allowing some posts that call for death to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in countries including Russia, Ukraine and Poland, according to a series of internal emails to its content moderators.
These calls for the leaders’ deaths will be allowed unless they contain other targets or have two indicators of credibility, such as the location or method, one email said, in a recent change to the company’s rules on violence and incitement.
The emails said calls for violence against Russians are allowed when the post is clearly talking about the invasion of Ukraine. They said the calls for violence against Russian soldiers were allowed because this was being used as a proxy for the Russian military, and said it would not apply to prisoners of war.
In a tweet, Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said the company would temporarily allow forms of “political expression” that would normally violate their terms of service, including “violent speech.” He gave the example of “death to the Russian invaders” as a phrase that could be accepted now.
“We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians,” he said.
The temporary policy changes on calls for violence to Russian soldiers apply to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine, according to one email.
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. Moscow has cracked down on tech companies, including Twitter, which said it is restricted in the country, during its invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a “special operation.”
Many major social media platforms have announced new content restrictions around the conflict, including blocking Russian state media RT and Sputnik in Europe, and have demonstrated carve-outs in some of their policies during the war.
Emails also showed that Meta would allow praise of the right-wing Azov battalion, which is normally prohibited, in a change first reported by The Intercept.
Meta spokesman Joe Osborne previously said the company was “for the time being, making a narrow exception for praise of the Azov Regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.”
The regulator, Roskomnadzor, said there had been 26 cases of discrimination against Russian media by Facebook since October 2020, with access restricted to state-backed channels like RT and the RIA news agency.
Roskomnadzor also declared Friday a block on Twitter, saying it cut access to the platform in line with the Russian Prosecutor General’s office decision. The watchdog has previously accused Twitter of failing to delete the content banned by the Russian authorities and slowed down access to it.
The moves are a major escalation in an ongoing confrontation between big tech companies and Russia, which has in recent years issued a slew of fines and hobbled services through slowdowns. The tensions have ramped up amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special operation.”
Meta’s head of global affairs Nick Clegg said the company would continue to do everything it could to restore its services.
“Soon millions of ordinary Russian will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out,” he said, in a statement posted on Twitter.
Meta in a blog said it was working to keep its services available “to the greatest extent possible” but it had stopped showing ads to users in Russia and barred Russian advertisers from running ads anywhere in the world “due to the difficulties of operating in Russia at this time.”
Tech companies such as Alphabet Inc’s Google have also paused advertising in Russia amid growing censorship demands.
Last week, Moscow said it was partially limiting access to Facebook, a move the company said came after it refused a government request to stop the independent fact-checking of several Russian state media outlets. On Saturday, Twitter also said its service was being restricted for some Russian users.
Major tech companies have faced pressure to respond to the Feb. 24 invasion, which has led to economic sanctions against Moscow by governments around the world. Russian state-run media has emerged as a key flashpoint between Moscow and social media platforms during the conflict.
Meta this week said it had restricted access to RT and Sputnik across the European Union and was globally demoting content from Russian state-controlled outlets’ Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, as well as posts containing links to those outlets on Facebook.
Russia has made several moves to crack down on foreign news media in recent days. It cut access to several news organizations’ websites, including the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for spreading what it says is false information about its actions in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s government had called on Meta and other platforms during the conflict to withdraw their services from Russia. Online speech experts and rights advocates have raised concerns about the impact of blocking online services for Russian citizens trying to organize or get information.
Meta had about 7.5 million users on Facebook in Russia as of last year and 122.2 million users across its other services, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, according to estimates from Insider Intelligence. The leading Russia-based social network VK had 63 million users, the researcher estimated.
Popular VPN apps have been downloaded more than 1.3 million times in Russia since its invasion of Ukraine began, according to data from researcher AppFigures, which described the figure as a major surge.
Meta was also one of several tech companies facing possible punitive measures in Russia after they failed to open local offices and take other measures required by a communications law passed this summer.
Tech companies globally have pulled out of Russia in response to requests from governments or to signal support for Ukraine. U.S. internet provider Cogent Communications said on Friday it was cutting internet service to Russian clients.
Earlier this week, business software giant Oracle Corp said it was suspending all operations in Russia, while rival SAP SE said it would pause all sales in the country. A Ukraine government official had tweeted at both companies asking for support.
Roskomnadzor said in its statement that Meta had restricted access to the accounts of state-backed news outlets in recent days, listing RT, Sputnik, the RIA news agency, the defense ministry’s Zvezda TV and websites gazeta.ru and lenta.ru.
It said such restrictions violated the key principles of freedom of information and Russian internet users’ unimpeded access to Russian media.