Russia has a curious love-hate relationship with Facebook

In the wake of revelations that data firm Cambridge Analytica ...

Posted: Apr 5, 2018 5:11 PM
Updated: Apr 5, 2018 5:11 PM

In the wake of revelations that data firm Cambridge Analytica may have obtained information on millions of Facebook users without their knowledge, internet users are raising serious questions about Facebook and how it operates.

Those same users would be wise, while the company is under the microscope, to pay closer attention to Facebook's curious and complicated relationship with Russia.

Earlier this week, Facebook said it had removed hundreds of accounts and pages that were linked to the Internet Research Agency, the so-called "troll factory" indicted by US prosecutors for its efforts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.

On Wednesday, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs went on the offensive, saying it would raise the matter with the US government:

"We will discuss the topic of blocking Russian media accounts in an interdepartmental format, because this applies not only to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, but also to our other specialized structures," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, in response to a question from CNN. "We expect an official response to this situation from the American authorities."

Zakharova added: "We want to understand how the representatives of the US State Department and other structures evaluate the blockade of Russian media by the American social network."

It was an interesting response from Zakharova, who is a prolific user of Facebook. The ministry spokesperson maintains a robust and combative presence on Facebook, often using the social-media platform as a bully pulpit for the Russian government.

Case in point: Zakharova said Thursday on Facebook that the UK has its own "test tube of shame" after its Foreign and Commonwealth Office deleted a tweet stating that Russia had produced the Novichok nerve agent used in the Salisbury poisoning. In fact, British scientists have been unable to confirm where the nerve agent was made, although the government has said other factors have led it to point the finger at Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's interest in Facebook's policies has another dimension. The deletion of the Russia-related accounts gives the Russian government the opportunity to call out what it sees as Western hypocrisy, particularly when it comes to press freedom.

Zakharova confirmed that the Federal News Agency, a St. Petersburg-based media group, also had its pages deleted by Facebook.

"We had questions from CNN regarding this topic," she said. "A representative is here from the Federal News Agency, which has had its resources blocked. Maybe you could talk to each other, do an interview, ask what it was blocked over? Maybe tell the American audience that these are people involved in journalistic activities, that they are open."

So why was the Federal News Agency banned? While it is not named in US special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment against several Russian entities, Russian investigative reports have linked the media outlet to the Internet Research Agency and the troll farm.

In a statement, Facebook said that "the IRA has repeatedly used complex networks of inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people who use Facebook, including before, during and after the 2016 US presidential elections. It's why we don't want them on Facebook. We removed this latest set of Pages and accounts solely because they were controlled by the IRA -- not based on the content."

But in the Russian Foreign Ministry's view, it was a clear-cut case of Facebook curtailing press freedom.

"Show solidarity in connection with the blocking of your colleagues!" Zakharova said. "I repeat: If there is any information that says that the Federal News Agency was engaged in activities not corresponding to Facebook's values, we would also like to know about it."

The Federal News Agency is linked by Russian investigative news reports to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch US investigators believed to have bankrolled the Internet Research Agency to disseminate fake news and sow discord in the American political system.

Lyudmila Savchuk, an investigative journalist who once worked for the Internet Research Agency, wrote a post on Facebook saying that the Federal News Agency and associated news sites "have nothing to do with journalism."

In the post titled "a farewell to arms," Savchuk expressed hope that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and chief executive, will "not waver, and will not give them back the opportunity to continue their criminal activities in distortion and in the fabrication of facts from whole cloth for the sake of creating chaos in the world."

Unlike China, which openly censors the internet, Russia has a relatively thriving internet culture. YouTube videos by opposition leader Alexei Navalny have garnered millions of page views.

And Russia has vibrant debate on social media, despite anti-extremism laws that observers say can be used to target government opponents for prosecution.

Russian officials use Facebook. In addition to Zakharova's presence on the platform, the Russian Ministry of Defense uses Facebook for statements and press releases.

The criticism of Facebook's policies, then, reflects a larger ambiguity within Russian society over social media and new communications tools.

On Wednesday, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, said that four terrorist acts were carried out in Russia last year, and another 25 terrorist acts were prevented -- and all of them were coordinated through private messaging applications, the Russian state news agency TASS reported.

Such statements are worth watching.

Russian regulators are currently threatening to block Telegram, a popular messaging application, unless it gives the FSB access to its encryption keys. Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, says that's something the service won't do.

And in Russia, that's as big a deal as Facebook data: Telegram is widely popular, used by journalists, politicians -- and even the Kremlin's press service.

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