Russian Arms Control Delegation in Vienna: Contradictions Related to U.S. Social Media Account Outages

OrganizationsDiplomatic Missions ♦ Published: January 19, 2022; 08:36 ♦ (Vindobona)

According to reports by Russian news agencies TASS and RT, the Facebook account of the Russian Arms Control Delegation, a division of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the OSCE in Vienna, was blocked last Friday and unblocked on Monday, after intervention by Russia's telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor. A fact check of the relevant Russian media reports reveals a tangle of allegations and exaggerations.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: As part of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the OSCE, the Delegation of the Russian Federation to the Vienna negotiations on military security and arms control is affiliated with Russia's foreign ministry. / Picture: © English: Foreign and Commonwealth Office Wikimedia Commons / English: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0

On Sunday, January 16, TASS reported that Facebook had banned the account of the Russian delegation to the Vienna military security talks.

Mr. Konstantin Gavrilov, Head of the Delegation of the Russian Federation to the Vienna negotiations on military security and arms control told state news agency TASS that the Facebook page of the delegation was taken down for publishing "illegal content".

He added that the delegation used the Facebook page to post statements from Russia's leadership or the Russian foreign ministry.

As part of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the OSCE in Vienna it is affiliated with Russia's foreign ministry.

Earlier, Mr. Gavrilov had blasted out several posts on Twitter to announce his displeasure at the non-functioning of his Facebook account. Two sample tweets follow:

According to Gavrilov, the Russian delegation plans to raise this problem also within the OSCE structures.

"This is a blatant act of censorship in the information space," Mr. Gavrilov said in a separate statement on Twitter.

TASS further reported, that media watchdog Roskomnadzor said on Sunday evening, it had sent a letter to Meta, Facebook's parent company, and that it was demanding Facebook "immediately" lift all restrictions on the official page of Russia's Arms Control Delegation in Vienna, and "explain the reasons for introducing them".

"Such actions of the administration of the Facebook social network violate the key principles of free distribution of information," Roskomnadzor said.

The regulator continued to say that it considered Facebook's move an "act of censorship".

These are some of the facts and unconfirmed assumptions from the head of the delegation of the Russian Federation to the Vienna negotiations on military security and arms control.

Subsequently, both the Russian delegation itself and RT (formerly Russia Today), a Russian state-controlled international Internet content provider in English, have taken up the issue and played it up.

"The blocking of the Facebook account is yet another example of illegitimate censorship of information space", the Russian mission to the OSCE said.

"We regret to learn that Facebook account of @armscontrol_rus has been banned without explanation," it wrote on its Twitter account.

Furthermore, the diplomats have blasted it as an "act of censorship specifically targeting Moscow."

RT further writes "The diplomats were so surprised by the development that they initially believed it had been some sort of technical error on the US tech giant's part. "They waited for two days" before reaching out to Facebook and to the Russian Foreign Ministry in a bid to resolve the issue."

"The social media service, however, did not clarify the reasons for the ban." "There was no explanation; nothing from them," Gavrilov said, adding "that he was still wondering what exactly might have triggered the move".

If that was the case, and it is unknown why the account was inaccessible, then the question arises as to why there is talk of an act of censorship specifically targeting Moscow. Technically, it could have been caused by anything.

RT gets creative further on: "The delegation posted "nothing [that could be considered] prohibited" on its account, where the content included official statements on subjects like security guarantees, the situation in Ukraine, and some other strictly "practical political issues." It was "very strange" to find out the page had been shut down", the head of the delegation is reported to have said."

"Gavrilov believes it was all part of a targeted anti-Russian campaign waged by western social media giants. These companies have a “policy” of erasing any content that “does not correspond to their views” and they “can do anything they want,” the diplomat said, admitting that his own personal Facebook page had been blocked three times.

“They all follow our accounts very closely and when they think it is too much, they block them without explanation,” Gavrilov said. “This is ridiculous. No proof, nothing. It is an unprecedented policy of the western media against us,” he said, adding that, according to his estimations, Russian officials are targeted much more often than any of their foreign counterparts."

Finally, RT confirmed that the delegation had sought help from Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor and the agency issued a statement on Sunday, accusing Facebook of an "act of censorship" and warning it that such actions are forbidden under Russia's constitution. It also demanded the account be restored "immediately" and urged Facebook to provide an explanation for its removal.

According to RT, Facebook did not make any statement, but as of Monday the page was suddenly working again.

RT has often been described as a major propaganda outlet for the Russian government and its foreign policy.

According to Wikipedia, academics, fact-checkers, and news reporters (including some current and former RT reporters) have identified RT as a purveyor of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Even UK media regulator Ofcom has repeatedly found RT to have breached its rules on impartiality, including multiple instances in which RT broadcast "materially misleading" content.

According to a TASS report from February 2021, Mr. Gavrilov had the same thing happen to the Twitter account of the Russian delegation to the Vienna talks almost a year ago, which was also temporarily blocked.

"On February 12, 2021 the official Twitter account of the Delegation of the Russian Federation on Military Security and Arms Control was blocked without any prior warnings or any explanations for the reason of alleged "violation of the Twitter rules".

On February 13 the access was restored but the account automatically lost all of its followers whose number almost reached 900 in just several months since the account was created. This was rectified some time later."

"We wish to hope that this was no more than a technical failure, since, if deliberate, such incident would be not only a gravest act of censorship but also disrespect for the right of the followers to the freedom of information access. As the content of the account remained untouched, our followers can see for themselves that it was used to express nothing but the position of the Russian Federation on relevant global issues on today’s politico-military agenda", Head of Delegation Konstantinos Gavrilov wrote at the time.

RT suspects that such attacks by US tech giants, including Meta, are deliberate acts of revenge, as Russia has repeatedly fined them for ignoring content moderation requests as the country ramps up its control of internet platforms.

According to the BBC, in December 2021 a Moscow court has fined Google 7.2bn roubles (US$98m) for repeated failure to delete content deemed illegal in Russia. Details of the offending content were not specified in the announcement by the court's press service. This is the first time in Russia that a technology giant has been hit with a fine based on their annual turnover, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

Facebook parent company Meta received a 1.9 billion ruble (US$27 million) court fine, again for failing to remove banned content.

Twitter was also issued a fine of 3 million rubles (US$40,000) for not removing banned content.

Russia has demanded big tech platforms take down "extremist" content. Critics have said the Russian government is using extremism as a pretext to censor content critical of the Kremlin, such as photos or information about anti-government protests.

Russian Delegation on Facebook

Konstantin Gavrilov on Twitter