Meanwhile, the Russian government said on Friday it was blocking the popular Instagram, taking further action against Meta – the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – over reports the day before that Facebook had allowed posts calling on the death of Russian leader Vladimir. Putin. He had previously blocked Facebook.
The Russian government’s moves show how the Kremlin is increasingly willing to censor free speech and retaliate against tech companies in what some are calling a new digital iron curtain. But the tech companies themselves, experts said, are rewriting their rules as they go in response to the rapidly evolving conflict, tweaking policies and struggling to maintain a consistent stance as events unfold.
“This is clearly a crisis information environment and technology companies are making a lot of decisions on the fly,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
The resulting Russian retaliation further cuts people off from valuable internet services, he added, which could “make it more difficult to hold the Russian government accountable for its actions.”
Facebook pushed back against criticism that it was inconsistent and said the extreme nature of current events required the company to be nimble in its calls for judgment.
“I want to be perfectly clear: our policies are focused on protecting people’s right to free speech as an expression of self-defense in response to a military invasion of their country,” said Nick Clegg, president of the Society for public affairs. “The point is that if we applied our standard content policies without any adjustments, we would not remove content from ordinary Ukrainians expressing their resistance and fury against invading military forces, which would rightly be considered unacceptable. “
Russia’s attorney general said on Friday the government was opening a criminal investigation against Meta and seeking the company’s classification as an “extremist organization and a ban on its activities” on Russian territory, alleging the platform had been used to incite “mass riots accompanied by violence”.
The country’s media regulator also said in a press release that access to Instagram was restricted in the country on Friday due to posts “containing calls to commit acts of violence” against Russian citizens in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
The crackdown on Instagram comes a week after the government’s internet censor announced it would block Facebook, which is far less popular in Russia. Meta said the shutdown was a retaliatory measure because the company refused to end fact-checking posts on state-controlled media Sputnik and RT.
On Thursday, Facebook content moderators leaked new guidelines that showed Facebook decided to break its own rules to allow some calls for violence against the Russian invaders. The company confirmed the leak.
On Friday, YouTube also took stronger action against state media.
“Our Community Guidelines prohibit content that denies, minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent events,” YouTube tweeted. “In line with this, we are also blocking access to YouTube channels associated with Russian state media worldwide, expanding across Europe.”
But experts said that for years Silicon Valley companies have allowed Russian state-owned media services to publish twisted accounts of world events and downplay violence, including playing a role in the minimization of the war in Syria.
The coronavirus pandemic is a prime example, Brooke said. For years, tech companies said they wouldn’t block misinformation on their platforms because they didn’t want to be arbiters of the truth, but then they started removing content about the coronavirus that people say experts, went against public health guidelines.
Meta, Google-owned YouTube, and other social media companies have come under immense pressure to isolate and suppress Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. Facebook, TikTok and YouTube have banned Russian state media in Europe and Ukraine in response to government demands, limiting Moscow’s ability to spread misinformation to millions of people. But the Ukrainian government has urged the companies to go further, imploring them to completely shut down their services in Russia as punishment for its aggression.
Facebook refused, arguing that its services are essential for activists and ordinary Russians to communicate with their families. But last week, Russia’s internet censor said it was blocking Facebook anyway. On Friday, Instagram was added to the list.
The Russian Investigative Committee on Friday opened a criminal case against Meta and is calling for the company to be classified as an “extremist organization and a ban on its activities” on Russian territory, alleging that the platform was used to incite ” mass riots accompanied by violence”. The consequences of such an investigation were not immediately clear.
Facebook’s decision on Thursday to allow some calls for violence against Russian forces as the assault on Ukraine rages on created an unusual exception to longstanding rules that prohibit such language. The change also allows users to call for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin or his ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in countries including Russia, Ukraine and Poland, the company said.
Dozens of nations have imposed sanctions on Russia, targeting the country’s economic arteries as a way to threaten Putin’s war chest. It left companies scrambling to reassess their business dealings in the country and sparked a flurry of announcements: On Thursday, Goldman Sachs announced it was “closing” its operations in Russia, following hundreds of other Western companies that have closed or suspended their operations. Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo and US chain Victoria’s Secret also joined the list announcing they would temporarily close Russian stores, causing long queues as shoppers lined up for what could be their last chance. for months to buy the goods.
The United States has already halted imports of Russian petroleum and energy products, which accounted for about 60% of the $26 billion worth of goods American buyers imported from Russia last year. On Friday, the White House announced bans on additional products, including vodka, diamonds and seafood. President Biden also unveiled additional sanctions targeting Russian leaders and said the United States would join in their allies to cut off Russia’s access to financing from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.