Why WhatsApp Survived Russia’s Social Media Purge

It has become easier to be labeled an extremist in Russia. On Monday the label—once reserved for the likes of the Taliban and the Islamic State—was given to Facebook’s parent company, Meta.

A Moscow court ruled that Meta was an extremist organization in a decision that effectively banned social media platforms Facebook and Instagram from operating in Russia. But the court ruling included an interesting carve-out: WhatsApp. Both of the other platforms had been blocked earlier in March after clashing with the Kremlin over content referencing the war in Ukraine. But the ruling purposefully allowed the company’s messenger platform WhatsApp to continue operating in the country. “The decision does not apply to the activities of Meta’s messenger WhatsApp, due to its lack of functionality for the public dissemination of information,” the court said, according to Reuters.

To some, sparing WhatsApp is a sign of increasingly erratic policymaking by Moscow. “I don’t understand how they can do that,” says Kevin Rothrock, managing editor of the English-language edition of Russian news outlet Meduza. “Why only some of Meta’s products are extremist isn’t totally rational to me.”

But for others it is a sign that the Kremlin is worried that ordinary Russians, who are already wrestling with sanctions and shortages, will only tolerate so much disruption to their daily lives. WhatsApp is one of Russia’s few remaining Western services. Although the app is not used to disseminate news in the same way as Facebook or Instagram, both experts and people inside Russia suspect the Kremlin is hesitant to block the country’s most-used platforms. WhatsApp is hugely popular in Russia, with 84 million monthly users in January 2022, according to Statista.

That popularity means officials would risk political backlash if it was blocked, says Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The state is trying to calculate collateral damage,” she says, adding that WhatsApp in Russia is mostly politically neutral, used by people to chat with classmates or their family. “You can’t compare WhatsApp in Russia with WhatsApp in Brazil, for example.” The state doesn’t want to risk “an outcry of people who are not really politicized but use WhatsApp for privacy,” she adds.

Alena Georgobiani, a communications expert based in Moscow, also believes WhatsApp is protected by the number of people who use the app, as a move to block the service would inconvenience a lot of Russians. “Everybody uses it. I don’t have many people on my contact list who don’t have WhatsApp,” she says.

Popularity as a protection mechanism does not only apply to WhatsApp. A look at Statista’s 2020 list of Russia’s most popular platforms shows that the country’s authorities have been blocking from the bottom. Twitter—the 11th-most popular app in the country—was blocked on March 4. TikTok—the eighth-most popular—suspended its services on March 6. Now Facebook and Instagram—seventh- and fourth-most popular respectively—have also disappeared. Yet the two most popular US platforms in the country—YouTube and WhatsApp—are still operating.

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