Last Friday, Russia filed a criminal complaint against Facebook's parent company, Meta Platforms, and moved to label it an "extremist organization" after the social media platform changed its hate speech policies permitting users to call for violence against Russians during the Ukraine conflict.
"A criminal case has been initiated ... in connection with illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation by employees of the American company Meta, which owns the social networks Facebook and Instagram," Russia's Investigative Committee stated.
President Vladimir Putin receives direct reports from the committee. The legal ramifications of the criminal case were not entirely apparent. Meta made no response to a Reuters request for comment.
A Meta spokesperson claimed on Thursday that, two weeks into Russia's war in Ukraine, the platform had temporarily relaxed its restrictions for political expression, letting messages like "death to the Russian invaders," but not demands for aggression against Russian civilians.
The temporary modification, according to Meta, was made to allow for kinds of political speech that would typically be prohibited. On Friday, its supervisory board stated that it was closely monitoring the war in Ukraine and Meta's response.
Russia has been attempting for months to limit the impact of US tech companies such as Alphabet Inc's Google and Twitter, fining them again and again for permitting what it considers to be unlawful content.
However, the invasion of Ukraine, which was met with widespread international criticism and harsh sanctions, has increased the stakes in the information war dramatically.
Putin's argument - faithfully repeated by the strictly regulated state media - that Moscow was compelled to initiate its "special military operation" to save Russian-speakers in Ukraine against genocide and to demilitarize and "denazify" the country gets heavily opposed via social media.
According to the Investigative Committee, Facebook's action may breach sections of Russian criminal law prohibiting public incitement for terrorist actions.
"Such actions of the (Meta) company's management not only form an idea that terrorist activity is permissible, but are aimed at inciting hatred and enmity towards the citizens of the Russian Federation," the state prosecutor's office said.
It stated that it has applied to a court to have Meta recognized as an extremist group and its operations in Russia prohibited.
The US company seems to have momentarily permitted messages calling for Putin's or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's deaths, as seen in the internal Meta emails obtained by Reuters.
"We hope that isn't true," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, "because if it is, it will mean that there will have to be the most decisive measures to end this company's activities."
The proposed change in Facebook policy is "concerning," according to the UN human rights office.
Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are all prominent in Russia, and Meta owns them all.
Russia announced last week that it will ban Facebook in the country due to what it claimed were limitations on accessibility to Russian media on the platform. According to the prosecutor's office, access to Instagram will also be restricted by the state communications regulator.
Alexei Navalny, a jailed Putin opponent, used Instagram to send a message via his attorneys and supporters on Friday, calling on Russians to attend rallies this weekend against the Ukraine war and "mad maniac Putin". According to a source quoted by Russia's RIA news agency, WhatsApp would be unaffected by the legal actions because the messaging application is regarded as a means of communication rather than a means of disseminating information.