Facebook Fails Democracy

Selective Connections

After making Instagram an indispensible tool of social media, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shut off service to the man who needs it most, Alexei Navalny. Why? Because Vladimir Putin told him to. Because Navalny is Putin’s most potent rival. Because Navalny is using Instagram and Facebook to organize a boycott of Russian elections in which Putin is getting ready to vote himself in for the fourth time. Because Navalny is effective.

So Putin enlisted Zuckerberg’s support in quashing Navalny. Putin added that he would ban Instagram from Russia if Zuckerberg refused. Zuckerberg caved in. Although that’s not how Zuckerberg pictured it. Through a spokeswoman he said this:

“When governments believe that something on the internet violates their laws, they may contact companies and ask us to restrict access to that content.”

So far, so good. Nothing a company can do about that.

The bombast, however, waxed hypocritical: “We review such requests carefully in light of local laws and where appropriate, we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory.”

Oh, do they? Poppycock.

Let us consider what government Zuckerberg chose to defend and from what dreadful fiend:

The government: In studying the local laws of Russia and their implementation, Facebook may have become aware that Putin has constructed a gangland-style political environment that allows him to rub out opponents and critics when, where, how, and by whom he chooses. Facebook also probably picked up on the fact that Russian laws are invoked only when they serve the interests of the Kremlin. And Facebook surely became aware, if it did not already know, that the Kremlin owns or controls Russian television and is doing what it can to control the Internet, but faces technical limitations that thwart its purpose, the reason Putin needs Zuckerberg.

Perhaps Facebook stumbled across the Magnitsky Act, put in place by the U.S. Federal government to punish the Russian officials responsible for the death of a jailed Russian tax accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian state carried out by the Russian government. And did Facebook notice that further sanctions had been imposed on Putin’s government for meddling murderously in the Ukraine? Perhaps, in pondering all this, Facebook might have realized that Russia is widely condemned for its ongoing, large-scale, systematic abuse of human rights.

Perhaps Zuckerberg learned that in the upcoming election Putin intends to achieve 70-70 legitimacy – 70% of the vote from 70% of the population. And he might have even considered that in opposing the rigged election, Navalny is fighting for values that Zuckerberg ostensibly stands for.

Now for the fiend: By opposing Putin’s federally organized crime syndicate, Navalny has become vulnerable. I will not list all the others before him who were shot in elevators (Politkovskaya) or on bridges in view of the Kremlin (Nemtsov) or poisoned in London (Litvinenko). I will only say that Navalny is the best and the brightest and the most courageous of those left. Despite multiple jail stints for holding unsanctioned rallies; a “brilliant green” attack – dashed with Zelyonka dye that nearly blinded him in one eye; incarceration of his brother and associates; regurgitated federal convictions to let him know he can be put away at any time, Navalny continues to call United Russia a party of crooks and thieves. He persists in organizing a boycott of the 2018 presidential election.

Despite these peccadillos, Putin’s current complaint was merely this:

Navalny violated the privacy of Oleg Deripaska by posting Instagrams showing the Russian billionaire entertaining the Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko on a yacht. Female escorts were on that yacht, though a red herring to my mind. People may fornicate, people may commit adultery; not federal crimes, they are certainly overwhelmingly private acts, which the actors overwhelmingly don’t want publicized. Hence the girls conveniently served as the basis for Deripaska’s complaint. The issue Navalny wanted to expose, however, was why the billionaire was entertaining the deputy prime minister on a yacht. (I do find curious that female escorts are so often thrown into the Russian mix as enticement, when surely these so-called top-level men have seen and had it all.)

Navalny alleges the meeting is evidence of political corruption at the highest government levels. So what might the billionaire and deputy prime minister have arranged? Since the yacht was apparently not wired for sound (which may well be why they were on the yacht), this must remain a mystery unless a female escort speaks, and one won’t. One did do something almost as bad: posted an Instagram of her outing on a yacht and unwittingly publicized the fact that the meeting took place.

Navalny uploaded her photo of the 2016 boat meeting mid-February 2018 alongside a post detailing his corruption claims. Deripaska obtained a court order to remove the Instagrams as well as related YouTube clips. Navalny refused. Promptly thereafter Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal executive body responsible for media and telecommunications, issued a takedown notice to Facebook and Google.

However it may have come about, whatever fate rocketed him to the top, the freckled, blue-eyed kid has failed us now. Zuckerberg, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, bowed to Putin, thereby exposing Navalny to the gravest danger of all: obscurity. The freedom fighter’s greatest protection at this time is visibility, not just in Russia but in the United States. Yet the Facebook giant chose to abet Putin’s efforts – thereby lending those efforts the legitimacy Putin craves – reached across into Russia, and snatched away from Navalny the tools he had been using so effectively to fight for democracy. Besides the naiveté he has betrayed, Zuckerberg has sent a chilling message to those of us in countries where democracy has prevailed. Corporations will throw their lot in with despots if it suits them, and maybe not just in foreign lands.

What stings is that Zuckerberg continues to strut his stuff: All he wants is to connect everybody on the planet provided, that is, they confine themselves to publishing photos of hilarious family barbeques, kids smeared with cupcake icing at birthday parties, and chihuahuas dressed in baby clothes. Yes, one big happy idiotic Facebook family.

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