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Sanctioned rebels are using Facebook to recruit fighters and spread pro-Russia propaganda, whistleblower complaint claims

A former physician known by his nickname, “the Surgeon,” Zaldostanov has been on the U.S. government sanctions list since 2014, amid allegations that he helped Russian troops confiscate weapons during the country’s invasion of Crimea.

The sanctions block Zaldostanov’s assets and generally prohibit U.S. citizens from “dealing” with him, but on Facebook he maintains a very active account, posting frequent support of Russia since the invasion.

The multitude of sanctioned entities and individuals who, like Zaldostanov, maintain a robust Facebook and Instagram presence is the subject of a pair of new whistleblower complaints, filed in December and February, arguing that Facebook parent company Meta engaged in “reckless or willful” violations of U.S. sanctions law by permitting the accounts, according to redacted copies reviewed exclusively by The Washington Post.

The existence of these accounts, the filings allege, allowed the users to cultivate global legitimacy and spread Russian propaganda. The complaints identify other posts appearing to recruit fighters and solicit funds to back pro-Russian separatists, which some legal experts suggest could violate U.S. sanctions laws, as well as Facebook’s rules. One post from a pro-Russian rebel called for volunteers with experience “in combat and armed conflicts.” Another video sought donations for separatist forces to pay for “equipment for soldiers on the front.” (The Post independently viewed this content on Facebook on Tuesday.)

The complaints were made to the Justice Department and the Treasury Department by Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit organization representing Joohn Choe, a Facebook contractor hired to study extremism on the platforms after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. A parallel complaint filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission argues that the company misled investors. Choe is seeking whistleblower protections from the SEC.

In an interview with The Post, Choe said he decided to go public with the complaints after Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, driven by concerns that the Facebook accounts helped Russian President Vladimir Putin create a narrative to justify the war.

“Facebook is knowingly aiding and abetting in the information war that Russia is waging,” Choe said. The social media posts “[legitimize] the pretextual basis of this war.”

Although posts raising money for militias would appear to violate Facebook’s terms of service, the bulk of Choe’s complaints collide with a murky area of the law. Experts say there’s been little government action to clarify whether social media companies have a legal obligation to remove accounts and posts from many individuals and organizations under sanctions. Limiting the communications of people who are subject to sanctions could violate laws intended to protect free speech.

These legal questions have taken on greater urgency as the U.S. government leverages unprecedented sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. The whistleblower complaints have the potential to force the U.S. government to clarify its positions, said Scott Anderson, a sanctions expert with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

Meta says that it adheres to sanctions and that prohibitions vary considerably depending on the type of sanction a government imposes. The company says the sanctions are often targeted in nature and don’t always prohibit a person from having a presence on its platform.

“This allegation is untrue — we are committed to complying with U.S. sanctions laws and are treating these individuals and entities as we’re required to under U.S. law,” said Meta spokeswoman Dani Lever.

Many sanctions laws have historically exempted the sharing of information as an activity that is subject to sanctions, and so far, tech companies have resisted calls for them to crack down on certain figures: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran are both on government sanctions lists, yet maintain active social media presences across online services.

U.S. companies cannot provide assistance or services to sanctioned entities, but the government has made broad exceptions for media and communications because the U.S. government does not want to be perceived as suppressing free speech, Anderson said. The exception, known as the Berman amendment, dates to the 1980s, when the United States seized magazines and books from embargoed countries that were subject to sanctions.

Internally, Facebook executives have debated how they should apply sanctions laws to their services, according to three people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive matters. Executives at the company have pressed the State Department for more clarity in recent years about how social networks should enforce sanctions on their platforms.

“Congress needs to address this and should more clearly specify, across sanctions regimes, what is required of social media. The ambiguity is unsustainable,” said Brian Fishman, a senior fellow at New America, a think tank, and Facebook’s former director of counterterrorism, dangerous organizations and content policy. Fishman said he had no specific knowledge of the whistleblower’s allegations but worked on issues related to sanctioned individuals and groups while at the company.

In the complaints, Choe’s lawyers called the agencies to investigate whether the company should be fined for sanctions violations, which the legal team argues could amount to tens of millions of dollars. By filing with the SEC whistleblower program, Choe could be entitled to a monetary reward.

“This isn’t just morally wrong, it’s illegal. This isn’t even a close call,” said John Tye, the founder of Whistleblower Aid and Choe’s lawyer, who worked on U.S. sanctions regimes during the Obama administration. Tye said that based on his experience at the State Department, the posts and accounts identified would not be subject to exemptions under the Berman amendment.

Whistleblower Aid is the same nonprofit organization that represented former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen in her disclosures to the SEC, which argued that Facebook misled investors about the extent of coronavirus misinformation, extremism and human trafficking on the platform.

Choe’s complaints identify Instagram and Facebook pages linked to Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, Russian-backed leaders of separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine, both on the U.S. sanctions lists for years. The Treasury Department accused Pushilin of overseeing uprisings across the eastern region of Ukraine and accused Pasechnik of smuggling arms and other contraband to Russia.

Both men played a central role in Putin’s justification for his invasion of Ukraine. The Russian president claimed he was deploying “peacekeeping” forces as he recognized the independence of these separatist regions, known as the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

Zaldostanov, Pushilin and Pasechnik did not respond to requests for comment through their social media accounts. Pasechnik has publicly said he is not deterred by economic sanctions and has vowed to overcome them. The Treasury Department, the Justice Department and the SEC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Choe began warning Facebook officials of groups under sanctions that were using the platforms in August 2021, according to emails reviewed by The Post. He compiled a report, called “Project Denim,” outlining how the Belarusian regime surveilled people’s Facebook posts, using interactions such as “likes” as evidence of “extremism” to arrest critics of the government. The report documented Belarusian secret police operating a network through Facebook and Instagram to coordinate arrests and intimidate activists.

In that document, Choe identified Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to GUBOPiK, a sanctioned Belarusian state security service that has been accused of political repression. The report also included links to Facebook posts from Aleh Haidukevich, a Belarusian member of parliament who was put on the U.S. sanctions list after defending the forced 2021 diversion of a commercial flight to detain a journalist. In one August post mentioned in the complaint, Haidukevich appears to be defending a 2021 crisis at the Belarus-E.U. border, saying that Belarusian border guards found a man “beaten half to death.”

Choe sent the report to his project supervisors at Facebook in early August, according to emails reviewed by The Post, and later that month escalated his findings in emails to Facebook officials including Miranda Sissons, Facebook’s director of human rights.

“Yes, Belarus is indeed a highly repressive government,” Sissons wrote in an email. “It’s a very complex deck.”

Lever, the Meta spokeswoman, said the matter was pursued internally. Haidukevich and Sissons did not respond to requests for comment.

Choe says Facebook took no action on the accounts, which were still active on Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a failure of due diligence on a massive scale, a systemic massive scale,” he said.

Following months of what Choe described as inaction, he and Whistleblower Aid confidentially submitted complaints in December about the activity in Belarus to the Justice and Treasury departments. Months later, a day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Choe and his lawyers submitted the complaint focused on sanctions violations in Ukraine.

Facebook says it reviews its content with an eye to sanctions laws, and has on some occasions removed content, such as posts from terrorist organizations, and closed accounts, citing sanctions. But the company’s application of its policies has been uneven, say three people familiar with discussions between company and government officials.

In the absence of clarity from the government, companies are often forced to interpret sanctions enforcement on their own. Facebook’s own secret list of “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals” that are not allowed on the platform, published last year by the Intercept, contains many entities that have been placed under sanctions for terrorism in the United States.

Facebook weighs whether to censor individuals who are affiliated with a government if the result would be that that government might take legal action against the platform, said one of the people. In countries such as Russia, which has passed laws limiting U.S. tech giants’ abilities to operate there, executives have discussed how enforcing content policies could result in the Kremlin curtailing the company’s ability to operate and provide an important service to the public. Last week, Russian authorities blocked access to Facebook, curtailing citizens’ access to news about the war.

If a sanctioned individual or entity used a social media account to raise money, it would almost certainly violate sanctions law, some experts say. Then the activity isn’t merely the exercise of free speech; it’s using a U.S.-based company’s services to engage in business that might, in practice, evade other elements of the economic sanctions.

“There is a very clear line that gets drawn at fundraising,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department sanctions official who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

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