On Sunday, Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor made a series of blistering and profoundly ironic accusations about Facebook and Google. The agency alleges that the two technology giants hosted political advertisements during the nation’s September 8 regional elections. As such, the department claims that the two firms interfered in its “sovereign affairs” and obstructed the holdings of democratic elections in the Russian Federation.
Influence of Facebook and Google
Roskomnadzor reports that Facebook, Google’s search results, and YouTube showcased political ads on the day that Russians headed to the polls. The regulator argues that by doing so the tech firms violated the county’s election laws. Specifically, Russian Civic Chamber member Aleksandr Malkevich accused Google of displaying material supplied by Alexei Navalny, an activist and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin.
According to Malkevich, voters searching for information on the election would be directed to information regarding Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative. The activist’s program called on citizens to vote for candidates who didn’t belong to Putin’s United Russia party. Malkevich also said that Facebook prevented Moscow’s Election Commission from making posts detailing voting day violations.
Last Friday, Roskomnadzor asked Facebook and Google to not publish any political ads on the weekend of the poll. As of this writing, neither Big Tech firm has responded to the regulator’s accusations. The agency’s claims of foreign poll manipulation are ironic given the superpower’s alleged international electoral meddling of its own.
In July, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released a report indicating that Russian actors interfered in American elections from 2014 to 2017. Indeed, the committee found probable state-sponsored operators who waged a sophisticated, multipronged attack on the U.S. voting system. Conversely, Roskomnadzor is claiming that Facebook and Google messed up their ad deployments on one weekend in one region.
As such, the regulator’s accusations seem dubious. Moreover, Roskomnadzor’s allegations seem like a convenient way to distract the public from the strife currently affecting the Russian political system.
The Power of Smart Voting
Navalny launched the smart vote program to lash out against an alleged authoritarian crackdown by the Putin administration. Earlier this summer, Russia’s Election Commission forced more than 200 candidates off the ballots in the nation’s regional elections. The agency claims that the anti-Putin politicians got the boot because their electoral paperwork didn’t have enough required signatures.
However, the candidates claim that the Kremlin barred them because it didn’t want them coming into power. Subsequently, Russian citizens took to the streets of Moscow to protest the perceived electoral manipulation. In August, local police arrested more than 1,300 people for participating in an unauthorized demonstration.
Despite the public outcry, the commission refused to add opposition politicians to the ballots. In response, Navalny called on Russian citizens to cast their votes for any politician that wasn’t part of United Russia. As a result, 20 anti-Putin politicians won seats in Moscow’s 45-member Duma.
Ultimately, Navalny’s smart vote strategy failed to wrest power away from United Russia. However, the electoral experiment did prove that the Russian President’s domination of his country’s political system is less than absolute. Furthermore, it likely gave some of the officials who interfered in the U.S. elections a taste of their own extremely bitter medicine.