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Russian Trolls Sue Facebook, Their Old Propaganda Machine

The social network used to be a happy home for Kremlin agitprop. Now that Facebook has become a bit more hostile, the propagandists are suing as First Amendment martyrs.

Spencer Ackerman11.20.18 5:40 PM ET

Facebook has for years been an open sewer for state-backed propagandists and their unwitting allies to disseminate lies and posture as trusted news sources. And a year after Facebook belatedly attempted to slam the grate shut on the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based trolls are taking the social-media giant to court.

A corporate twin of the infamous IRA, calling itself the Federal Agency of News (FAN), filed suit in a northern California federal court on Tuesday demanding that judges force Facebook to restore its account. The Russian outlet insisted it’s merely “an independent, authentic and legitimate news agency.” And it made an argument likely to discomfort Facebook and attract support from the far right: it’s a free speech martyr unfairly victimized by the 21st century discourse’s digital gatekeepers.

“Facebook took action against FAN in an effort to silence and deter FAN’s free speech,” it argued in its brief.

FAN had its account shuttered on April 3, the day that Facebook’s now-departed security chief, Alex Stamos, announced another wave of crackdowns over inauthentically presented accounts that traced to the troll farm. “The IRA Has No Place on Facebook,” Stamos wrote in a blog post.

FAN and the IRA are key components of Russia’s state-backed propaganda machine. They operated out of the same building, 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg–something FAN concedes in its lawsuit. And FAN’s chief accountant, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, was indicted last month as part of what the FBI called “Project Lakhta,” a Kremlin-backed influence campaign on two continents.

Both are believed to be funded by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch so close to the Kremlin that he’s known as “Putin’s chef.” Data from Google Analytics and other sources link FAN websites to “former” IRA employees; essentially, the two groups shared internet infrastructure, as well as a common physical location and a source of cash. The FBI specifically accused Khusyaynova of keeping extensive receipts on expenses incurred by a project for which the IRA was just one component. FAN’s founder and first director, Aleksandra Yurievna Krylova, was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February for her alleged activities as part of the IRA.

In its lawsuit, FAN attempts to declaim all knowledge of Project Lakhta and the IRA, mostly through agnosticism.

Yes, Mueller indicted Krylova, alleging that she “was an employee of the IRA,” FAN says. But like Donald Trump assessing the culpability of the Saudi crown prince for a journalist’s murder, FAN claims the truth of its founder’s affiliations is a mystery to it: “FAN has no knowledge of this allegation and therefore does not know if it is accurate or not.”

Sure, FAN and the IRA shared office space until “the middle of 2015,” FAN adds, but it subsequently “searched for new premises that would be more convenient for its business with regard to a larger space for the office premises.”

Indeed, the indicted Khusyaynova has been FAN’s “chief accountant” since 2016, but FAN “has no knowledge of ‘Project Lakhta,’” and suggests it’s a figment of a paranoid American imagination. (“There is no known business or other organization in the Russian Federation that operates under such name.”) In any event, Khusyaynova is just a functionary, with “duties...akin to those of a bookkeeper in the United States. She is not an officer of FAN,” the group insists.

And FAN implies that the injustice of its shuttered Facebook account boils down to unthinking Russophobia. Posturing as a victim, it argues in its brief, “the only similarity between FAN and any similar accounts Facebook contends to be ‘inauthentic’ and controlled by the IRA is their national origin and that of their members. In any event, there was never any evidence that FAN had a direct connection to the IRA, and in fact, it did not have a relationship to the IRA.”

But all of that is a warmup to the argument FAN really wants to make, one that’s more political than legal: free-speech martyrdom.

“Facebook, while claiming to protect the public from ‘fake news,’ is actually engaging in censorship and denying FAN subscribers of access to a legitimate news publication,” it claims. “Facebook seeks to dictate news content based on its own political view point thereby attempting to influence the public media coverage of internal political events in the Russian Federation.”

It’s a savvy argument. Facebook, like Twitter, has demonstrated itself to be extremely uncomfortable with any suggestion that has a responsibility to vet the truthfulness of what appears on its massive platform. And as a recent blockbuster New York Times expose detailed, Facebook’s leadership is highly sensitive to accusations from the political right that it’s hostile to conservative perspectives. FAN clearly understands Facebook both as a publishing medium and a corporate entity.

Indeed, FAN’s argument may well resonate with those on both the right and the left who consider Facebook to be closer to a public utility than a private company. “Facebook creates rules and regulations for the conduct of this [online] community and functions in the same way as a government entity,” it alleges. It even argues that FAN has “First Amendment rights” to publish on Facebook–which the company has violated, “solely on account of its and its members national origin.”

Among the other harms the IRA-tied entity claimed by being shut out of its Facebook account: it’s lost “future opportunities to reach its subscribers,” as well as “status and prestige amongst its Facebook followers, the general public and the journalistic community.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.  

—with additional reporting by Kevin Poulsen