The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real reason Russia is blocking Facebook

The Kremlin’s crackdown isn’t about the social network. It’s a gambit with a broader aim.

Two women look at a phone in Moscow in September 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
4 min

Russia’s Internet censorship agency announced on Friday that it plans to block access to Facebook throughout the country, joining a small handful of the world’s most repressive regimes in cutting off its citizens from the world’s largest social network. In an Orwellian twist, the agency, called Roskomnadzor, said it made the move to uphold the free flow of information, blaming Facebook for restrictions it has placed on Russian state media outlets in recent days.

Of course, blocking Facebook isn’t really about upholding free speech for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spent years eroding press and online freedoms and arresting protesters. But contrary to what Western observers might assume, it also isn’t really about restricting Russians’ access to social media — at least, not directly. It’s an act of intimidation aimed at bringing other social networks to heel.

In many countries, Facebook is a dominant social platform, and a blackout of the blue app would deal a stifling blow to online communication. That was the case in Myanmar when the military blocked the social network as part of a campaign to silence dissent after a coup last year.

But it isn’t the case in Russia, where Facebook is used by less than one in 10 people, according to data from eMarketer. Far more popular are VK, a Russian-owned social network modeled on Facebook, along with YouTube, the messaging app Telegram, and Facebook’s sister apps WhatsApp and Instagram. For the vast majority of Russians, a block on Facebook itself should have little to no impact on daily life or communication.

Tellingly, initial indications were that WhatsApp and Instagram would remain accessible to Russians, at least for the time being, even though they are also owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta. So would YouTube, despite its own restrictions on Russian outlets such as RT and Sputnik. There were some reports that Twitter, which is not widely used in Russia but serves as an information conduit with the West, was inaccessible in Russia on Friday, though neither the country nor the company confirmed that it had been blocked.

Blocking Facebook, then, is less of a broadside against social media in Russia than it is a shot across the bow — a dramatic but largely symbolic act that serves as a warning and a threat. Because Facebook is so prominent in the West, the block stands to make big headlines outside Russia while provoking relatively little outcry from within. And now the censorship agency can point to its hard line against Facebook in its ongoing disputes with both Meta and other social media companies that have larger Russian user bases.

Russia’s Internet censor says it will block access to Facebook but not WhatsApp and Instagram

Indeed, Roskomnadzor said on its Telegram channel — its own social media platform of choice for communicating with the world — that it recently sent letters to YouTube parent company Google and TikTok pressing them on issues including their restrictions on Russian state media and TikTok’s algorithm recommending war-related videos to minors. (Chinese-owned TikTok, a major primary source of videos of the conflict from Ukraine, has been struggling to navigate its relationships with Russia and the West as the war unfolds.) Last month, Russia warned major U.S. tech firms that they had to comply with a new law requiring them to set up legal entities inside the country, giving the government more leverage over them.

It’s unclear at this point whether Russia’s block on Facebook will prove temporary or permanent — and whether it will be followed by crackdowns on other social networks in the country. But it is in keeping with a playbook that Russia and other countries have increasingly used to try to exert control over social media, said Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.

“We’re increasingly seeing platforms being blocked as a way for governments to coerce companies to abide by the state’s censorship and surveillance demands,” Funk said. She cited Nigeria’s seven-month block of Twitter, which it lifted in January after Twitter agreed to requests that included stationing employees in Nigeria and promising to respect local laws and culture. “They’re exploiting their role as gatekeepers to a particular market, and they’re trying to use the platforms’ power for their own political gain.”

Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.