The Overlooked Intersection of Social Media and Kleptocracy

Teodorin Obiang, the vice president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea (and also the president’s son), seemingly lives to populate his Instagram feed with private jet flights, meetings in opulent suits while perched on gold encrusted furnishings, and parties with carnival dancers. Flaunting his extravagant lifestyle, the corrupt vice president thrives on the social cachet of his popular blue-check account. The ostentatious social media presence of figures like Obiang – whose modest official government salary is only $100,000 – can be useful indicators of their criminality, but they also display a well-founded arrogance that they are immune to any real consequences for their actions.

The sheer scale of dirty money flooding U.S.-led financial systems from kleptocracies like Equatorial Guinea makes existing asset-recovery programs ineffective at deterring the theft of State wealth and corresponding repression by kleptocrats. A critical mass of American policymakers is beginning to seriously confront the central role that lax financial regulation plays in enabling kleptocrats and human rights abusers.

In November, congressional leaders secured major new anti-corruption measures with bipartisan support in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021. By establishing a beneficial ownership registry, strengthening the anti-money laundering regime, and providing protections for kleptocracy whistleblowers, the bill will help reduce money laundering opportunities in the first place. And this is likely just the beginning of much needed reform. President-elect Joe Biden and his top advisors have made anti-corruption one of their early priorities. In January, President-elect Biden wrote in a major foreign policy essay that he “will issue a presidential policy directive that establishes combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility.”

Unfortunately, the nascent policy debate surrounding interrelated risks big tech companies and their platforms pose to democracy does not display similar bipartisanship. During a Nov. 18 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced criticism from Republicans for Twitter’s content-moderation policy, saying it is biased against conservatives, and Democrats conversely criticized the social media platform for doing too little to minimize the spread of misinformation. One approach that could help bridge the partisan divide and get ahead of future threats to democracy is building on recent anti-kleptocracy bipartisanship to tackle the use of social media by kleptocrats and transnational criminals.

There are pragmatic reasons for anti-corruption investigators and activists to oppose social media restrictions on kleptocrats. When you are a run-of-the-mill transnational criminal like Nigerian Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, known as “Ray Hushpuppi” to his followers, a flamboyant Instagram account can be a major liability. The FBI was able to confirm Hushpuppi’s real identity, locate his address in Dubai, and connect him to conversations discussing the suspicious transfer of millions of dollars using a combination of public and private records obtained from Snapchat, Instagram, and Apple. The United Arab Emirates extradited him to the United States in July where he is charged with conspiring to launder the proceeds of cybercrime.

When you are a corrupt foreign official like Obiang, however, it is easy to flaunt ill-gotten wealth on Instagram with a sense of impunity. Although American, French, and Swiss courts have each seized Obiang-owned bank accounts, properties, and sportscars worth hundreds of millions of dollars, pursuing criminal prosecution is complicated by his status as a likely future president of an geopolitically important oil State. Existing asset-recovery programs have proven insufficient to alter Obiang’s behavior. When a French court handed him a suspended three-year sentence to go with the confiscation of his property, sportscars, and cash, Obiang reacted by posting smiling selfies on Instagram.

Corrupt officials from every corner of the globe rely on easy access to banking and real estate in the United States and Europe to stash plundered State wealth out of the reach of vengeful domestic forces should their grip on power fail. Seizing assets like Obiang’s requires expensive investigations into the inscrutable web of shell companies kleptocrats employ with the help of international brokers, accountants, lawyers, and bankers. The escape valve that complicit democracies provide to rapacious dictators and venal bureaucrats encourages them to loot the State and perpetuate authoritarianism while they can. If it all falls apart, many can always retreat to their luxury properties in Los Angeles, London, and the French Riviera.

With the growing international attention to the instability and repression that kleptocracy fuels, kleptocrats may turn increasingly to social media platforms to cultivate their reputations. It is remarkable that even individuals sanctioned by the United States are not explicitly prohibited from using platforms like Twitter and Facebook to speak directly to international and domestic audiences.

Not all sanctioned individuals remain free to use social media. In July, Google blocked the YouTube accounts of the Tsargrad TV channel in Russia and its former chief editor, pro-Kremlin analyst Aleksandr Dugin, citing violations of laws on sanctions and trade regulations. Tsargard TV’s founder and owner, Konstantin Malofeyev, has been under U.S. sanctions for years related to his participation in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In a similar case, Facebook blocked the Instagram account of the brutal Kremlin-sponsored head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2017 when the United States added him to the Magnitsky sanctions list that targets human rights abusers. Kadyrov had long burnished his strongman brand with his popular account, posting selfies with famous people among effusive praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Facebook has since periodically worked to shutter Kadyrov’s new accounts when they regain traction, but his Twitter account remains active. Freedom of speech issues make current U.S. sanctions law unclear on the subject of whether social media platforms must ban sanctioned individuals. The uneven legal interpretations by big tech companies regarding how they must respond to even the worst human rights abusers highlights the need for regulatory reform.

Because kleptocrats are, by definition, foreign government officials, it is understandable that Twitter and Facebook are uncomfortable with the idea of broadly policing their messaging let alone banning them entirely. In the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Dorsey drew attention to Twitter’s policy of exempting world leaders from some of its rules when he confirmed that President Donald Trump will no longer benefit from the exemption when he leaves office.

The incoherence of big tech practices regarding sanctioned kleptocrats could be eliminated with legislation that clarifies that companies are required to actively ban any individual or entity placed on U.S. sanctions lists from using their platforms. Call it the Kadyrov rule. If a foreign official is denied visas to the United States and barred from using U.S. financial institutions, why should they be allowed to use U.S. social media accounts?

More difficult to address will be cases like Obiang’s. The very oil that the ruling clique of Equatorial Guinea derives its illicit wealth from – while the majority of its citizens live on less than $2 a day – provides a geopolitical shield against substantial action from the United States and other democracies. Obiang may be an international pariah, but, as vice president, he remains free to travel much of the globe in style and publicize his exploits on Instagram. Free to grow a massive audience of fans, Obiang could exploit his Instagram platform in the future to disseminate far-reaching unfiltered political messages in defense of his corrupt behavior. Unsanctioned by the United States, not only would Twitter and Facebook likely eschew banning him from their platforms but also any calls to censor false or misleading messages he may spread on social media due to the exemption they make for the political speech of “world leaders.”

A category that should prove easier for big tech companies to stomach banning, or at least labeling, is that of former foreign officials who have been convicted of crimes. The former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, faces 42 charges in five separate corruption trials related to the 1MBD scandal that brought down his government two years ago. When he was convicted in the first trial in July for crimes related to the theft of billions of dollars from a State investment fund, he took to Facebook to profess his innocence. Despite the taint of corruption, Razak’s party has remained a key power broker throughout a tumultuous year in Malaysian politics.

Detractors argue that social media bans and labeling amount to violations of civil liberties. Freedom of speech certainly protects individuals’ right to publicly contest ongoing charges against them, but social media bans don’t prevent them from doing that. They can still make press releases and public statements. Media outlets can then vet their assertions and place them in context before distributing publication. On social media, powerful individuals are afforded greater control of their own potentially erroneous message, delivered directly to audiences who may not be getting all the facts elsewhere.

Given the clear vulnerability of social media platforms to foreign influence operations, denying kleptocrats the use of social media accounts to push positive PR narratives will only become more important should the United States and its partners finally crack down on the pernicious effects of kleptocracy. Presently, only Russia and a small handful of other States have invested in coopting social media to destabilize democracies by exacerbating polarization and attacking elections. The scale of the problem could grow exponentially if desperate kleptocrats from dozens of countries seek to emulate such inexpensive tactics in an effort, whether it is misguided or not, to preserve the safe haven their wealth has long enjoyed in democratic jurisdictions.

For all the desire in both American political parties to better regulate the tech sector, congressional debate over what “better” looks like has yet to truly begin. And the companies themselves don’t really know what corporate practices work well. Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers in November that they are still studying the data regarding whether their attempts to minimize election-related misinformation are effective.

With rare bipartisan agreement in Congress that the United States needs to address illicit financial networks and authoritarianism, social media rules and prohibitions that target kleptocrats could be a good starting point for more robust social media regulation. At minimum, a Kadyrov rule would clarify existing law and augment the bipartisan anti-kleptocracy push in Congress that will soon have an ally in the Oval Office. Denying kleptocrats access to social media platforms can help the United States stay ahead of kleptocrats’ inevitable attempts to innovate as they respond to an intensifying global fight against corruption.

Image: Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Council of the Federation Speaker Valentina Matviyenko take a selfie in the Hall of the Order of St. George during the State Council on ecology meeting on December, 26, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Ian J. Lynch

Independent foreign policy analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@Ian_J_Lynch).