Russia said on Friday it would shut down the activities of Meta Platforms if the operator of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp allowed users to call for violence against Russians and death to President Vladimir Putin.
(Sign up to our Technology newsletter, Today’s Cache, for insights on emerging themes at the intersection of technology, business and policy. Click here to subscribe for free
Internal Meta emails seen by Reuters showed the U.S. company had temporarily allowed posts that call for the death of Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A Meta spokesperson confirmed it had temporarily eased its rules for political speech, allowing posts such as "death to the Russian invaders", although it would not allow calls for violence against Russian civilians.
"We don't want to believe the Reuters report - it is just too difficult to believe," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday.
"We hope it is not true because if it is true then it will mean that there will have to be the most decisive measures to end the activities of this company," Peskov added.
The United Nations human rights office said the potential change in Facebook policy was "concerning".
Meta said the temporary change aimed to allow for forms of political expression that would normally violate its rules. Its oversight board said on Friday that it was closely following the war in Ukraine, and how Meta is responding.
In an email to moderators Meta said that it was allowing "violent speech that would otherwise be removed under the Hate Speech policy when: (a) targeting Russian soldiers, EXCEPT prisoners of war, or (b) targeting Russians where it's clear that the context is the Russian invasion of Ukraine (e.g., content mentions the invasion, self-defense, etc.)".
Russia invaded its neighbour Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what Moscow calls a "special military operation" that was partly launched from Belarusian territory, sparking widespread economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union and Britain.
Western companies, including banks, oil companies and retailers, have also moved to distance themselves from Russia.
"Meta's aggressive and criminal policy leading to incitement of hatred and hostility towards Russians is outrageous," the Russian embassy in Washington said in a statement on Friday.
Alexander Khinshtein, head of the information policy and IT committee at Russia's State Duma said the lower house of parliament would appeal to the Russian prosecutor general's office and Investigative Committee over the move.
"If this is true, then of course Instagram should be blocked in Russia after Facebook," he said.
Russia said last week that it was banning Facebook in the country in response to what it said were restrictions of access to Russian media on the platform. That leaves Instagram and WhatsApp in focus.
"They should think about how they are using these platforms. They incite hatred, and even more, they call for the murder of Russian citizens," Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin said in a post on VKontakte, Russia's answer to Facebook.