Incriminating Instagram The Russian authorities want to outlaw Meta as ‘extremist’. What does this mean for social media users in Russia?
On March 11, a spokesperson for Meta — the parent company behind Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp — confirmed that the social media giant had temporarily altered its content moderation to allow some posts calling for violence against “Russian invaders.” The response from the Russian authorities was harsh. Federal investigators launched a criminal case against Meta’s staff and the Russian Attorney General’s Office called for designating the company as an illegal “extremist organization.” If the authorities go through with outlawing Meta, millions of Russians could be incriminated in “extremist activity” just for having profiles on Instagram and Facebook. What’s more, the social networks’ logos would be banned in Russia as “extremist symbols” (just like the swastika, for example). For answers to our questions about what this means for Meta — and for Russia’s Facebook and Instagram users — Meduza turned to Pavel Chikov, the founder of the human rights group Agora.
What’s the procedure for designating a company like Meta as ‘extremist’?
The Russian authorities maintain a list of “extremist organizations.” An organization is recognized as “extremist” by the Russian Supreme Court, at the request of the Attorney General’s Office, Pavel Chikov explains. Any organization can be blacklisted through the courts — even if it isn’t a registered legal entity. For example, in June 2021, the Moscow City Court outlawed Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption nonprofits and political movement as “extremist” following a complaint from Moscow prosecutors. The latter wasn’t a registered organization.
Designating an organization as “extremist” can be a “quite a lengthy procedure,” Chikov says. In the case of Navalny’s organizations, the court proceedings lasted from April to August 2021 (when the initial ruling entered into force). However, given the “wartime” conditions in Russia right now, Chikov believes this process will move faster than usual — this means we could see the case against Meta go to trial in as little as two or three weeks. However, things will likely slow down after that:
“Roughly speaking, there won’t be a first-instance judgment before the end of March. Then, according to the rules of the Administrative Procedure Code, Meta will have one month to file an appeal — by then it will be the end of April. Then there’s the May holidays [and] then the case will go from [the court of] first instance to appellate [court]. Objectively, the decision on designating Meta an extremist organization can only enter into force in June,” Chikov predicts.
After that, it will take about a month for Meta to be entered into the federal registry of “extremist organizations.” This means that realistically, we won’t see any “legal consequences” until later this year.
What are the ‘legal consequences’? Does this mean that using Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook in Russia would constitute involvement in ‘extremist activity’?
This is an “open question without an answer,” Chikov says. Indeed, there is no legal precedent here. On March 11, Russian Senator Andrey Klishas stated that those who have accounts on Meta’s social networks, as well as those who continue to use the company’s platforms despite the government’s blocks, will not be considered “extremists.” However, as Chikov points out, Klishas is “not a person who is authorized to officially interpret Russian legislation.”
With this in mind, Chikov says that if Meta is blacklisted as a “extremist” it’s “theoretically possible” that Facebook users in Russia could be subject to felony prosecution for “participation in the activities of an extremist organization.”
Should users in Russia delete their Meta-owned social media accounts right away?
The short answer is not yet. “There are no legal requirements for users right now, and there won’t be for quite a long time. This means there are no risks,” Chikov says. However, the rights advocate adds that if you’re stopped or detained by Russian police (at an anti-war rally, for example) and they go through your phone (despite the fact that this is a privacy violation) this impending “extremism” designation could be used to put pressure on you. “But this doesn’t mean that the actions of the police will be lawful,” he underscores.
Therefore, if you’d rather avoid such an unpleasant situation — and you’re prepared to part with your Facebook and Instagram — deleting these apps won’t hurt:
“If you want to be as pristine as possible in the eyes of Russian law enforcement agencies and ensure that no one asks you any questions, you can take down [your Facebook and Instagram accounts] right now. But there’s no such legal obligation and there are no legal consequences for using these social networks before they are added to the list of extremist organizations.”
What about those who earn money from Facebook and Instagram, have business pages on those platforms, or pay Meta to place ads on social networks?
If (or rather, when) Meta is added to Russia’s list of extremist organizations, any financial relations with the company will be considered illegal.
State media reported that WhatsApp won’t be blocked in Russia, even though it’s owned by Meta. Is this true?
If Meta is designated as an “extremist organization,” then all of its subsidiaries and services will be considered “extremist” too, Chikov says. As such, WhatsApp may be affected, as well as Meta’s “lesser-known services” (such as Messenger, Oculus, and Workplace) and their users. In short, an extremism designation could very well lead to WhatsApp being blocked in Russia, regardless of what officials are saying right now.
If Meta is designated as ‘extremist’ will symbols like the Facebook and Instagram logo be prohibited in Russia?
Yes, which means displaying these symbols could lead to prosecution under the administrative statute that bans the “distribution of symbols of extremist organizations.” “As soon as an organization ends up on the extremist list, the police get carte blanche and the freedom to apply Article 20.3,” Chikov warns.
You can read Meduza’s full Q&A with Pavel Chikov in Russian here.
Explainer by Eilish Hart