Why is This Man Still on Twitter?

Banned by law from other US social media, Ramzan Kadyrov is still tweeting

Ramzan Kadyrov waves to the crowd in the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem, in March 2014. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Ramzan Kadyrov waves to the crowd in the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem, in March 2014. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

During his time on Instagram, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen strongman, became a minor social media phenomenon as he sought to promote a cult of personality centered on himself. He posted frequent workout videos featuring himself and his gym partners, shots of himself snuggling various exotic animals, and promoted the Chechen mixed martial arts scene. 

Kadyrov, who rules Chechnya with an iron fist, has also allegedly had journalists and civil society activists in the region killed. Last year, he made the news for reportedly having authorities round up and torture gay men.

On Dec. 20, he also became one of five new Russian citizens to face sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. A few days later, his Facebook and Instagram accounts disappeared, seemingly in response to the sanctions.

Kadyrov’s ban from Instagram removed him from his favorite propaganda platform, and on Dec. 27, he attacked his removal from the service as an assault on the very democratic values he has worked to undermine. “Question for Facebook and the Ministry of Finance,” he wrote on Twitter. “Where is your vaunted democracy and the right of citizens to receive information?”

His tweet raised an interesting question: Why did Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, ban Kadyrov, but Twitter didn’t?

Facebook confirmed to Foreign Policy that Kadyrov was indeed banned because of American sanctions against him but wouldn’t elaborate on what aspects of the U.S. sanctions regime require the company to boot individuals from its platform.

“The U.S. Dept. of Treasury’s office of Foreign Assets Control (‘OFAC’) administers lists of individuals and organizations who are sanctioned by the US government (‘restricted parties’),” a Facebook representative wrote in an email. “U.S. Companies are required to comply with U.S. restricted party sanctions. To comply with these sanctions, Facebook prohibits restricted parties from having a presence on Facebook.”

Once accounts for individuals on OFAC’s list of “specially designated nationals” are identified, Facebook, according to the representative, has a legal obligation to take action.

But the law might not be quite as clear as that.

Peter Harrell, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security who developed sanctions at the State Department during the Barack Obama administration, explains that the difference might come down to something called the Berman Amendment.

The Berman Amendment, Harrell says, is an amendment to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, that states nothing in that law can be used to constrain publication.

“If you have a sanctions designation based on IEEPA, it’s very clear that that cannot be used to prohibit publication activities,” Harrell says.

The United States has, for example, leveled sanctions against Venezuela under IEEPA, but per the Berman Amendment, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro couldn’t be kicked off Facebook — at least not over sanctions.

The Berman Amendment applies only to IEEPA sanctions and not other sanctions programs, such as the separate legal provisions outlining the Global Magnitsky Act. “There is a legal argument that because Kadyrov was sanctioned under Magnitsky, rather than under IEEPA sanctions, the Berman Amendment does not apply,” Harrell says, meaning the U.S. government could conceivably sue Facebook to force Kadyrov’s removal, a risk the company may have not wanted to take.

So why did Twitter let Kadyrov remain on its platform?

Twitter declined to comment on its reasoning, but Harrell suspects that because the Berman Amendment “reflects underlying First Amendment-type interest,” courts could decide that even if someone was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, he or she can’t be prevented from publishing in the United States.

“Twitter has always been a very robust free speech platform. They’ve allowed trolls to run rampant, they’ve allowed many odious, odious characters,” Harrell says. “They see themselves as a very strong free speech, pro-First Amendment kind of place.”

The “vaunted democracy” and “right of citizens to receive information” that Kadyrov asked for, then, were right where the question was posed — on Twitter.

Asked to comment on Kadyrov’s removal from Facebook and Instagram, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Washington raised a different issue. “It’s rather stunning, but the following fake account still exists,” the spokesperson said — and linked to the Facebook page for a Soviet Embassy in Czechoslovakia.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

 Twitter: @EliasGroll