Facebook Removes Chechen Strongman’s Accounts, Raising Policy Questions

Megan Specia, New York Times, December 28, 2017

The strongman leader of the Chechen Republic has long been a prolific social media user, filling his accounts with photos of him cuddling his cat, lifting weights or soliciting poems about President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

So when Ramzan Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, which had four million followers between them, were unexpectedly taken down on Dec. 23, people took notice.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that Mr. Kadyrov’s accounts were deactivated because he had just been added to a United States sanctions list and that the company was legally obligated to act.

Mr. Kadyrov has reportedly been involved in acts of torture, kidnapping and murder, among other human rights abuses.

Many other people on sanctions lists, however, remain active on Facebook and Instagram, including President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and many in his government. But the move against the Chechen leader — despite his violent background — is only the latest in a seemingly arbitrary and often opaque decision-making process that has drawn criticism of the social media giant.

Facebook has been pilloried for allowing the spread of fake news on its platform and its limited response. In this case, it says it’s legally obligated to act because of financial sanctions, a standard that has not been evenly applied and which experts say may not be defensible.

“This sanctions law, which was written for one purpose,” said Jennifer Stisa Granick, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project, “is being used to suppress speech with little consideration of the free expression values and the special risks of blocking speech, as opposed to blocking commerce or funds as the sanctions was designed to do. That’s really problematic.”

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Now, Mr. Kadyrov — and the Russian government — want answers from Facebook about its reasoning.

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“I am not perturbed by this petty U.S. rat race, but here is my question for Facebook and the Ministry of Finance,” Mr. Kadyrov wrote, referring to the United States Treasury Department, the agency behind the sanctions. “Where is your praised democracy and the right of citizens to receive information? Or do 4 million followers mean nothing?”

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President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has an active Facebook page, despite being hit with sanctions by the Treasury Department last July and labeled “a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people.” Mr. Maduro uses his account to live-stream videos from political rallies and deliver messages to his fellow Venezuelans.

His vice president, Tareck El Aissami, is also a target of United States sanctions but has a functioning Facebook page. Other members of Mr. Maduro’s government on sanctions lists are also still active on Facebook, including Ernesto Villegas Poljak, the culture minister.

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Facebook did not respond to questions about this discrepancy in removals.

After his accounts were removed, Mr. Kadyrov criticized Facebook via the messaging app Telegram the same day. He accused Facebook of trying to appear “officially independent of Washington” while making a politically calculated decision to remove his accounts.

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He announced that in response to the removal of his accounts , he had opened an account on the Chechen social network Mylistory, which he said was “in the testing phase” but “in no way inferior” to its more popular U.S.-based counterparts.

Mr. Kadyrov’s account on VK, a Russian social network, is still functioning, with more than 575,000 followers. His Twitter account is remains up and has 418,000 followers, though it is not “verified” by the social media platform, meaning it does not have a coveted blue tick. And his Telegram account has nearly 25,000 followers.

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