Putin Ponders Banning WhatsApp, Used by 80 Percent of Russians to Communicate

Russian President Vladimir Putin may be moving to ban popular messaging app WhatsApp amid the fighting in Ukraine after its parent company Meta announced it would allow users to make threats of violence against Russian soldiers invading the country.

Russian authorities will also reportedly ban Instagram, which is also owned by Meta, and the Prosecutor General's office wants to designate the company as an "extremist organization."

"In accordance with the Federal Law 'On Countering Extremist Activity', the Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation sent an application to the court to recognize Meta Platforms Inc. as an extremist organization and ban its activities in the territory of the Russian Federation," the Prosecutor General's office said, according to a report from Russian wire service Interfax.

Designating Meta as an extremist organization would halt its operations in Russia but Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted a source on Friday saying WhatsApp would not be affected.

"The WhatsApp messenger will not be affected by the measures. Since this is a means of communication, not a source of placement," the source said.

However, Sergey Boyarsky, first deputy of the State Duma (lower parliament house) Committee on Information Policy said on Friday that he had "little doubt" both Instagram and WhatsApp would be banned.

When contacted by Newsweek on Friday, WhatsApp pointed to Russian media reports, including from RIA Novosti, saying that WhatsApp will not be banned.

According to figures from a survey conducted by consulting firm Deloitte in July 2021, 82 percent of Russians over the age of 14 used WhatsApp. The ban is the latest action taken against social media companies by President Vladimir Putin's government, which had already restricted access to Facebook, also owned by Meta.

Russia has also opened a criminal case into Meta related to the company's decision to ease its rules on political speech in order to permit threats of violence against invading Russian forces.

"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," said Russia's Investigative Committee, which answers directly to Vladimir Putin.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows WhatsApp use in Russia in July 2021.

Graph Shows WhatsApp Use
This graph illustrates the use of social media messengers in Russia based on a survey by Deloitte in July 2021. Statista

Roskomnadzor, Russia's telecoms and mass communications agency, issued a statement on Friday saying it would restrict access to Instagram.

"Based on the requirement of the Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation, access to the Instagram social network (owned by Meta Platforms, Inc.) in the Russian Federation will be limited," the statement said.

"The Instagram social network distributes informational materials containing calls to commit violent acts against citizens of the Russian Federation, including military personnel," Roskomnadzor said.

A Meta spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that the company would allow users to make threats against Russian forces invading Ukraine.

"As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine we have temporarily made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules like violent speech such as 'death to the Russian invaders,'" the spokesperson said.

"We still won't allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians," the spokesperson added.

Meta also decided to allow threats against Russian leaders unless those threats included other people or had indications that they were credible. According to internal emails to moderators, reported by Reuters, that includes allowing some posts that threaten the life of Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally.

The Russian Prosecutor General's office appeared to take aim at Meta's decision to allow those kinds of posts on Friday.

"Such actions of the 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 said.

Follow Newsweek's live blog for the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Newsweek has asked Meta and the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.

Update 03/11/22, 9:44 a.m. ET: This article was updated to change the headline and to include more information, a new picture and a graph.

Update 03/11/22, 10:15 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include a statement from Roskomnadzor.

Composite Image Shows Meta Apps and Putin
A composite image shows apps owned by Meta and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia may be moving to ban WhatsApp. Getty Images