In late 2017, Instagram — and the platform’s parent company, Facebook — made one of the few moves that brought the platform universal praise from pundits and users alike.
In the wake of U.S. sanctions, the company decided to block Chechnya’s brutal leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, from using the platform. Kadyrov — who oversees a regime in southern Russia that regularly tortures its LGBTQ population and murders dissenting journalists and politicians — could no longer use his account to reach his 3.2 million followers.
For a few hours on Wednesday, though, the brutish leader was back, singing his own praises.
.@instagram unblocks Ramzan Kadyrov’s account and the Chechen leader celebrates by posting an ode to his pistol. “How many well-aimed, leaden ‘words’ have you told my enemies and to scoundrels while defending my honor, dignity and life?” pic.twitter.com/QG4kCXomFn
— Andrew Roth (@Andrew__Roth) November 14, 2018
Instagram told ThinkProgress that the return of Kadyrov’s account was a slip-up. “This account was mistakenly restored and has now been removed,” an Instagram spokesperson told ThinkProgress.
Kadyrov, who was once described as “Instagram-addicted” by the New York Times, hit the ground running after his account was restored. One of his new posts threatened unnamed “enemies,” while another post pointed directly to his banishment from Instagram.
“I don’t know how long this page or any of my resources will exist, but one thing I will tell you is that I’m not going to stop for a second my FIGHT against injustice, oppression, or violence,” he wrote.
To Instagram’s credit, Kadyrov’s account wasn’t back up long. And just last week, RFE/RL reported that Instagram had removed a separate Kadyrov-related account, with some 1.5 million followers. That account popped up in July, sharing photos and videos that “were clearly taken by Kadyrov,” RFE/RL wrote.
But the return of Kadyrov’s account points to a pair of realities that continue to bedevil social media — and highlight just how much leverage platforms like Facebook and Instagram still maintain.
For one, it points to questions around Instagram’s (and Facebook’s) policies as it pertains to coordinating with U.S. sanctions policy. While Kadyrov’s removal appeared to indicate some level of coordination, other people under U.S. sanctions — like Bosnia’s Milorad Dodik or Iran’s Qasem Soleimani — still maintain their Facebook or Instagram accounts.
“We operate under the constraints of U.S. laws, which vary by circumstance,” the Instagram spokesperson told ThinkProgress. “We will continue to work with appropriate government authorities to ensure we meet our legal obligations.”
An improved coordination policy would help Instagram reclaim some of the reputational ground it’s recently lost. Just last week, ThinkProgress reported that Instagram had missed dozens of fake Russian accounts that were still up by Election Day — some of which had been up for nearly a year. Facebook later revealed that hundreds of thousands of Americans followed these fake accounts. (On Wednesday, the New York Times also reported that Facebook had secretly employed anti-George Soros tropes to defend itself over the past year as well.)
Moreover, the move to block Kadyrov stemmed directly from the efforts of those targeted by Kadyrov’s brutality. As The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen wrote:
[One anti-Kadyrov activist] hit on the idea of getting Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts. “Getting organizations to get on board with a public-facing campaign to get him off Instagram totally failed,” the activist told me. “People were very concerned about their own security, in a way that I don’t usually see with advocacy work.” What human-rights organizations would ordinarily have conducted in a visible and vocal manner became a behind-the-scenes campaign…
On December 20th, the Treasury Department announced a list of five new Russian citizens facing sanctions, and Kadyrov’s name was among them. Two days later, Kadyrov’s Instagram and Facebook accounts disappeared.
Removing an Instagram account may seem an unorthodox means of combating ghoulish thugs like Kadyrov. But for a man who directs a regime that rounds up and tortures LGBTQ Chechens, that disappears journalists and opposition politicians, and that steers a private army in southern Russia, his lack of an Instagram account has clearly struck a blow against him, preventing him from spreading his propagandist vitriol. Here’s hoping the block continues — and is used for other monsters stalking human rights activists elsewhere.