Late last year, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic leader of the Chechen Republic. The social media giant claimed that it had a “legal obligation” to disable Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts because of new sanctions imposed by the United States government under the Magnitsky Act. Among other things, Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the assassination of a political opponent, personally torturing another, and leading a violent purge of gay men. He’s also an active social media user: four million people followed his Facebook and Instagram profiles, and 400,000 continue to follow him on Twitter. Kadyrov had become famous for posting videos of himself wrestling a crocodile, praising Russian President Vladmir Putin, and—perhaps ironically—mocking what he saw as the ineffectiveness of American sanctions.
As many journalists noticed, Facebook hasn’t disabled the accounts of other sanctioned individuals, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. Facebook explained this seeming inconsistency with an unhelpful truism that it “operate[s] under the constraints of US laws, which vary by circumstance.” Its statements have led observers to speculate that Facebook is using the sanctions as a pretextual reason to cut off a user it already disliked, or that it’s “picking and choosing compliance” in an attempt to please the government. Although those explanations seem plausible at first glance, a careful look at the relevant laws suggests an even simpler (albeit more mundane) one: Facebook may actually be correct that it had a legal obligation to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts but not those of others targeted by American sanctions.