World News

Facebook Removes Chechen Strongman’s Accounts, Raising Policy Questions

Posted December 28, 2017 7:18 p.m. EST

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 Putin of Russia.

So when Ramzan Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, which had 4 million followers between them, were unexpectedly taken down Dec. 23, people took notice.

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

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 Nicolás 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.”

Facebook, which also owns Instagram, does not have a comprehensive set of rules for dealing with the removal of accounts or posts, relying instead on an often confusing set of “community standards” as well as on an algorithm and users’ reports of impropriety on the platform. Being on a sanctions list does not currently appear as a violation of posted community standards.

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

‘Do 4 Million Followers Mean Nothing?’

In a tweet Wednesday, Kadyrov said Facebook had told him that the accounts were deactivated because he had just been put on the sanctions list.

“I am not perturbed by this petty U.S. rat race, but here is my question for Facebook and the Ministry of Finance,” Kadyrov wrote, referring to the U.S. 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?”

Both Kadyrov’s Russian language and English language Instagram accounts and his Facebook page were removed just days after he was added to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list.

Chechnya, a majority Muslim area, is technically under Moscow’s control, but Kadyrov has been given a generally free hand to run it in exchange for his loyalty to the central government. He is often described as a strongman, and he has been criticized by the international community for a slew of abuses.

Kadyrov and four other Russians were added to the sanctions list on Dec. 20 because of alleged human rights abuses and involvement in criminal conspiracies. The sanctions were imposed under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which allows U.S. authorities to freeze the U.S. assets of Russian officials considered responsible for human rights abuses. (It also bars them from obtaining visas for the United States.)

Kadyrov used his Instagram account to post a sarcastic video response to the sanctions against him. It showed him sitting on a weightlifting bench in front of a comically heavy stack of weights and mocking the U.S. government.

Kadyrov was not the only one critical of Facebook’s decision to deactivate his accounts. The Russian government also voiced concern.

Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications and mass media, said that Facebook’s decision to remove Kadyrov’s accounts might have consequences, Russia’s state-run news agency, Tass, reported Wednesday. The Kremlin itself has regularly quashed dissent by censoring content online, including blocking the social profiles of opposition officials, whom it accuses of spreading “hate speech.” Sanctioned By U.S., But Still Active On Facebook

Facebook defended its decision to remove the accounts, saying the government’s sanctions against Kadyrov obligated it to do so.

“We became aware and have now confirmed that the accounts appear to be maintained by or on behalf of parties who appear on the U.S. Specially Designated Nationals List and thus subject to U.S. trade sanctions,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement emailed to The New York Times. “For this reason, Facebook has a legal obligation to disable these accounts.”

Granick, the ACLU attorney, said that raised serious issues. “It’s not a law that appears to be written or designed to deal with the special situations where it’s lawful or appropriate to repress speech,” she said.

The company does not appear to apply this policy to all people sanctioned by the United States. Several other people on sanctions list have active, and even verified, accounts.

Maduro 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.” Maduro uses his account to livestream videos from political rallies and deliver messages to his fellow Venezuelans.

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

The social network has also been criticized for failing to take down hateful rhetoric aimed at marginalized populations while censoring posts that many saw as providing valuable information.

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

Another Day, Another Social Platform

After his accounts were removed, 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.

Kadyrov may be off Facebook and Instagram, but he is hardly without a platform. It remains to be seen what his cat does.

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.

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.

“In social networks, they can block pages, but the name of Ramzan Kadyrov will never be blocked by either them or their owners,” Kadyrov said in his Dec. 23 Telegram post.