The spokesperson for US tech giant Meta – which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp – has been added to an online database of wanted people in Russia on unspecified charges. Media reports on Sunday said the company’s communications director, Andy Stone, had been added to the list after Russian authorities classified Meta as a “terrorist and extremist” organization, opening up the possibility of criminal proceedings against people in the country using its services. Russian state agency Tass and independent news outlet Mediazona reported on the new development.
Russia has hugely cracked down on media and social media freedom since launching its Ukraine offensive last year and banning criticism of it. The Kremlin has blocked access to the main Meta sites in Russia and other Western sites as part of a crackdown on free speech. They are only accessible in the country via VPNs. In March, a Russian investigative committee opened a criminal investigation against the “illegal actions of Meta’s employees” and specifically named Stone. The committee accused him of inciting extremist activity after he lifted the ban on calls for violence against the military on the company’s platforms.
On Monday, a court in Moscow banned Facebook and Instagram in the country. Still, it ruled that WhatsApp would continue to operate because it “was a means of communication, not a source of information.” A representative for the security services FSB told the court that Meta’s messaging apps had created an alternative reality, kindling hatred for the Russians. “Meta’s activities have been aimed against the military and other national security bodies of the Russian Federation,” the FSB representative said. “The company carries out terrorist and extremist activities that have led to the formation of a dangerously negative environment in the minds of the population.”
In an interview with Reuters on Sunday, a spokesperson for Meta said it was aware of the report and that the company was in contact with the Russian embassy. The spokesperson emphasized that using the company’s services by individuals and legal entities in Russia was not considered participation in extremist activities and that people could not be held liable for their content on the platforms.
The spokesperson also noted that the Kremlin had previously tried to ban the site in the country but failed. “We will be patient and wait for the court’s decision,” the spokesperson added. “The company will be defended in the interests of its users.”
A spokesman for Russia’s interior ministry was not immediately available to comment.
Meta has been criticized in the past for not doing enough to tackle the spread of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and for its role in spreading violent rhetoric ahead of the 2021 protests in Washington. The company is being aggressively targeted as it faces a fresh wave of challenges over its role in the Ukraine crisis.
The spokesman was asked whether he thought the company had been unfairly targeted for its role in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. “I do not think so,” he replied.