MOSCOW — Until this week, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's rants, wishes and selfies were there for all to see on Facebook and Instagram.
He posed with actor Gerard Depardieu and boxer Floyd Mayweather. He posted videos of him beating up his sports minister in a boxing ring. He showcased a humiliating apology from a political opponent in Siberia. He cursed the United States as a supporter of terrorism.
Now they are gone: wiped clean in what is apparently the first time anyone has been publicly banished from Facebook and Instagram because of U.S. sanctions.
It's not hard to guess why Facebook — and Instagram, which it owns — would want to rid itself of Kadyrov, who has led the semiautonomous Caucasus enclave since 2007.
Reports about the imprisonment and torture of gay men in Chechnya — which left several dead and sent more than 100 men seeking political asylum — have made Kadyrov's name toxic in the West. That and a long history of accusations of torture and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya helped land him last week on a U.S. sanctions list that has targeted Russian officials overs human rights abuses.
Facebook and Instagram confirmed the move against Kadyrov. But what is left unclear is why they decided to boot off Kadyrov when many others under U.S. sanctions around the world continue to post away on Facebook and Instagram.
Kadyrov laughed off the sanctions (on Instagram), saying he had no assets in U.S. banks or plans to apply for a U.S. visa. But the loss of his Instagram account, which was blocked Saturday, may be no small matter for him, with nearly 3 million social media followers in the balance.
A team of cameramen, photographers and writers helped mold the strongman's public image on Instagram, the Wall Street Journal reported last year, pumping out a steady stream of “charming, callous and menacing” posts that serve “as a tool of political control.”
And if this is a precedent, then the influential members of Russia’s ruling establishment already hit by sanctions (and the wealthy oligarchs and their families said to be targeted in the next round this February) could also find their social media profiles, packed with anti-Western screeds and elevator selfies (the vaunted “lift-o-look"), at risk. (Dmitry Medvedev's is the highest-profile lift-o-look to date, although to be clear the Russian prime minister is not on any sanctions list.)
A spokesman for Facebook confirmed Wednesday to The Washington Post that the leader of Chechnya was banned — not for a violation of the social network's terms of service (for instance, posting a photo of an opposition member in a sniper's crosshairs) but because of his inclusion on the sanctions list of Specially Designated Nationals, which blocks trade and financial transactions with sanctioned individuals.
“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,” Facebook said in a statement emailed to The Post on Wednesday. “For this reason, Facebook has a legal obligation to disable these accounts.”
The sanctions are managed by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which does not explicitly block the use of social networks, and usually just freezes accounts and blocks financial transactions by the individuals, along with companies in which sanctioned individuals hold more than 50 percent stake.
The decision appears to be an expansion of the way sanctions can target individuals, and would appear to tie Facebook policy more closely with that of the U.S. government's foreign policy (a criticism already used by the Kremlin when it seeks to rein in the use of foreign social media in Russia).
But, for the moment, Kadyrov appears to be the only Facebook and Instagram exile over sanctions.
Other targets of U.S. sanctions, including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Iranian Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani, maintain active accounts on Facebook and Instagram. (Soleimani's Instagram was briefly inaccessible last year.)
For example, the Committee for the Rescue of Ukraine was on the Ukraine-Russia sanctions list, but still runs their own Facebook page. Why was Kadyrov banned, and they aren't? pic.twitter.com/XpUtCo6cmU
— Aric Toler (@AricToler) December 28, 2017
Facebook and Instagram (along with Twitter, which has not blocked Kadyrov) are popular means for members of the Russian government to build a following and stand out among a crowded field of ambitious bureaucrats.
Facebook users under U.S. sanctions include deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Crimea Sergei Aksyonov, the head of the Just Russia political party Sergey Mironov, the Russian far-right thinker Alexander Dugin, sanctioned companies such as the Russian military-industrial giant Rostec, and a press service for the Ukrainian go-between Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin's.
Other powerful members of government under sanctions include the heads of both houses of parliament, the heads of major intelligence services, and high-ranking members of the presidential administration.
Companies like @facebook and @Twitter need to make it clear that they will not interpret US (or any other gov't) sanctions to mandate closure/blocking of accounts. And they should be prepared to take the case to SCOTUS.
— Sam Greene (@samagreene) December 28, 2017
Then again, this could be a one-off in the case of Kadyrov, whose penchant for menacing threats and large following on Instagram made him a target.
The representative for Facebook confirmed it was the first time they had publicly confirmed blocking someone for being sanctioned, but wouldn't say whether there were plans to block accounts used by others. The representative referred further questions to OFAC, the Treasury Department office that manages sanctions.
The decision comes at a time when Facebook is facing considerable pressure in the United States to regulate the use of ads and accounts by foreign powers, particularly Russia, to secretly influence American voters. A tool released last week on the site allows users to see whether they liked content posted by a troll factory based in Russia called the Internet Research Agency.
At the same time, Facebook is under pressure from Russia to store all its user data in the country in compliance with new legislation. The state watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has threatened to block the social networking site next year if it refuses. Whether it will actually do so is another question.