By Alexander Marrow and Elizabeth Culliford
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow said on Friday it was partially limiting access to Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook, accusing it of “censoring” Russian media, announcing the measure a day after Russia invaded Ukraine and the latest in a series of steps against U.S. social media giants.
Moscow has also increased pressure on domestic media, threatening to block reports that contain what it describes as “false information” regarding its military operation in Ukraine, where Russian missiles were pounding Kyiv and families cowered in shelters.
The state communications regulator said Facebook had ignored its demands to lift restrictions on four Russian media outlets on its platform – RIA news agency, the Defence Ministry’s Zvezda TV, and websites gazeta.ru and lenta.ru.
Meta’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said in a statement on Twitter: “Yesterday, Russian authorities ordered us to stop the independent fact-checking and labelling of content posted to Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organizations. We refused. As a result, they have announced they will be restricting the use of our services.”
Meta, which has long been under pressure to combat misinformation, partners with outside fact-checkers, including Reuters, which assess some content for veracity. Meta says that content rated false, altered or partly false is shown to fewer users.
Clegg said “ordinary Russians” were using Meta’s apps — which include Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, as well as Facebook — to “express themselves and organize for action” and that the company wanted them to continue to do so.
Russia has been trying to exert tighter control over the internet and big tech for years, something critics say threatens individual and corporate freedom, and is part of a wider crackdown against outspoken opponents of the Kremlin.
U.S. Senator Mark Warner said in a letter to the chief executives of Facebook, YouTube and others that the companies have a duty to ensure their social media platforms are not misused by Russia and Russia-linked entities.
Each company has “a clear responsibility to ensure that your products are not used to facilitate human rights abuses, undermine humanitarian and emergency service responses, or advance harmful disinformation,” Warner said.
Alphabet Inc’s Google said it has removed hundreds of YouTube channels and thousands of videos over the last few days for violating its policies and was continuing to look for and disrupt disinformation campaigns and hacking. Google is also evaluating what any new sanctions and export controls could mean for the company, said spokeswoman Ivy Choi.
Twitter Inc said users in Russia and Ukraine would no longer see ads – an attempt to avoid distracting from public safety messages – and that they would not get recommended tweets from accounts they do not follow in a bid to limit the spread of abusive content.
It was not immediately clear what Russia’s restrictions on Facebook would involve. Last year Moscow slowed down the speed of Twitter in a punitive move.
“In accordance with the decision of the General Prosecutor’s Office, starting from Feb. 25, partial access restrictions are being imposed by Roskomnadzor on the Facebook social network,” the regulator, Roskomnadzor, said in a statement.
Meta has already irked Russia’s authorities. Moscow routinely fines the company small sums for what it says is a failure to delete illegal content quickly enough.
In December, it issued a much bigger fine of 2 billion roubles ($24 million) for what it described as a repeated failure to delete content. It has also fined Google, Twitter and TikTok.
($1 = 82.3984 roubles)
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow and Polina Devitt in Moscow, Elizabeth Culliford in New York and Paresh Dave in Oakland, California; editing by Marguerita Choy, Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)