MOSCOW — Amid international calls for Russia to free jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin took aim Wednesday at the power of Navalny's biggest weapon: social media.
“These are no longer just economic giants — in some areas they are already de facto competing with states,” said Putin, who addressed the conference for the first time since 2009. The gathering, which is normally held in Davos, Switzerland, was an all-virtual event this year because of pandemic concerns.
Putin’s comments referenced “events that took place in the United States during the election campaign,” an apparent nod to social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter imposing a ban on President Donald Trump after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But the remarks also come days after mass protests throughout Russia on Saturday calling for Navalny’s freedom were fueled by his team’s significant reach on social networks.
Not long after Putin’s speech concluded Wednesday, Navalny’s allies took to social media to post photos and video of police simultaneously arriving at Navalny’s apartment and office to carry out search raids as part of a criminal case opened for possible violation of health regulations, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Twitter.
Navalny — who has said Putin ordered Russian state security agents to poison him with a nerve agent during a trip to Siberia in August — published a video investigation on YouTube last week that alleged a Black Sea palace was built for Putin. It went viral, racking up more than 95 million views in a week.
After recovering in Germany from the poisoning, Navalny returned to Russia on Jan. 17, and he was immediately arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement case. Western governments have condemned Russia’s move to jail him.
As he was sentenced to 30 days in a pretrial detention site, Navalny called for street protests. Videos and posts promoting the rallies then quickly multiplied on the TikTok app, especially popular among Russian youths.
Russia’s state censor, Roskomnadzor, has said it will fine social networks such as TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others for not removing what it referred to as “illegal calls” to “participate in unauthorized public events.”
Russian officials have also been critical of Twitter, which has added “Russia state-affiliated media” labels to accounts belonging to state-run outlets including RT and Sputnik News. Western intelligence services have linked Russia to efforts to influence elections using social media disinformation in the United States and elsewhere.
It’s not surprising that Putin didn’t bring up Navalny on Wednesday. He has often refused to say his name, referring to Navalny as the “Berlin patient” during a December news conference.
Navalny was raised during a call Tuesday between Putin and President Biden, according to a White House readout. In a gloomy opening to his speech, Putin told Davos attendees that “there is a chance to face a real setback in global development, which is fraught with a fight of all against all and attempts to resolve looming controversies through a search for internal and external enemies.”