Russian "Troll Farm" Sues Facebook For Censorship

A Russian media outlet linked to an indicted "troll farm" has filed a lawsuit against Facebook after an April 3 ban from the social media platform for allegedly violating Facebook's Terms of Service (TOS). The Federal Agency of News (FAN) has accused Facebook of acting in concert with the US Justice Department (DOJ) to "rid the platform of Russian language accounts," and says it was inappropriately linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) - as the two companies shared a building between 2014 and 2015. 

A four-story building in St. Petersburg is known as the “Troll Factory”

FAN's US-focused website, USAReally.com, has also been blocked on Facebook, Google and Twitter - which the company says is part of a "witch hunt" against Russians. 

IRA was one of three businesses and 13 individuals indicted by Robert Mueller in February for alleged meddling in the 2016 US election for allegedly facilitating a "troll farm" operation designed to influence the 2016 US election. FAN's founder, Alexandra Yurievna Krylova was indicted by Mueller in February for her work at IRA between September 2013 and November 2014.

USAReally.com website at the company’s shared office in Moscow.
Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

FAN was also mentioned in the October indictment of Elena Alekseevna - accused by the DOJ of being the chief accountant for "Project Lakhta" - an alleged Russian political interference operation funded by dozen Russian entities, including FAN and Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin - known as "Putin's Chef" for his Kremlin catering contacts.

Another businesses named in the indictment, Concord Management, appeared in federal court in April to fight the claims much to Mueller's suprise

"They say we are trolls -- let them prove it," said FAN General Director Evgeny Zubarev in a Moscow interview last week. Zubarev is a former crime reporter who runs the self-described "pro-Russian" news outlet which filed suit against Facebook on November 20. 

Representatives of Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit and Zubarev’s statements. In April, Facebook removed almost 300 sites controlled by Internet Research Agency, the alleged troll farm. The chief security officer at the time, Alex Stamos, said then that IRA 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,” Stamos wrote.

The legal fight and accompanying accusations of a “witch hunt” -- FAN’s new English-language portal, USAReally.com, also has been blocked on Facebook, Twitter and Google, among others -- are feeding into a narrative in Moscow of a U.S. crackdown on free speech. FAN says it has a monthly readership of almost 9 million. -Bloomberg

Facebook cited TOS violations when it deleted the accounts of FAN and more than 270 Russian-language accounts in April, which FAN argues was done under pressure to comply with the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

FAN alleges in its complaint that Facebook violated the free speech protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by unfairly censoring users, including Russian news organizations engaging in the dissemination of information.

“Our point is that the internet is a forum and Facebook is using its market power to shut down free speech, and is acting like a government regulator,” said Dennis Boyle, FAN’s legal counsel in the U.S. Boyle traveled to St. Petersburg earlier this year to vet the organization after the case was referred to him by Russian attorneys. -Bloomberg

The lawsuit has some US legal scholars worried about the implications for Russian efforts to meddle in future elections.

"If this lawsuit wins, the Russian trolls will have unfettered access to spread lies on Facebook and Facebook can have nothing to do with it," said Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman. "They’re weaponizing the First Amendment against us by trying to reduce America’s ability to decide what can and can’t be discussed. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it."

FAN, which runs the website USAReally.com, says it's spending around $350,000 per year on the site which aims to counter "the hegemony of the US authorities in the information field." The site has a reported readership of 20,000 - 25,000 users per day. 

All this time we’ve been in a state of war, battling for our rights,” USAReally’s editor-in-chief, Alexander Malkevich, said in an interview in the site’s Moscow office, which it shares with FAN. It’s decorated with a photograph of President Donald Trump and the U.S. and Confederate flags as well as a Russian-language map of the U.S. pinpointing key social and economic problems in every state. -Bloomberg

Alexander Malkevich in Moscow on Dec. 7. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Malkevich was detained briefly and questioned while leaving the United States in early November after he came to the states to observe the midterm elections. He said he was in "deep shock" during his trip over what he said were "violations" during election day in Democratic-controlled states.

He was given a letter from the DOJ which linked him to the alleged troll farm and gave him a deadline to register USAReally as a foreign agent.