Joohn Choe, a Facebook contractor, filed two whistleblower complaints alleging that Meta is allowing accounts of sanctioned individuals to remain on its platforms. According to a March 10 article in The Washington Post, Choe filed one complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Treasury Department and a separate complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The complaint to the DOJ and Treasury Department alleges that there are a “multitude of sanctioned entities and individuals who…maintain a robust Facebook and Instagram presence” and that “Facebook parent company Meta engaged in ‘reckless or willful’ violations of U.S. sanctions law by permitting the accounts.” One such sanctioned individual is “Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the leader of a pro-Putin biker gang” — according to the article, Zaldostanov has been making posts on Facebook that “disparage the Ukrainian president and push falsehoods about the war.”
“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 article reports.
In his complaints, Choe alleges that the accounts “allowed the users to cultivate global legitimacy and spread Russian propaganda.” Additionally, Choe’s 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.” Choe was hired as a contractor for Facebook “to study extremism on the platforms after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.” His complaint with the SEC alleges that Meta “misled investors.”
According to The Post, “Choe is seeking whistleblower protections from the SEC.”
Choe told The Post that “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.” He said that “Facebook is knowingly aiding and abetting in the information war that Russia is waging.” The posts “[legitimize] the pretextual basis of this war,” Choe said. His complaints also identify Instagram and Facebook pages connected to other individuals and entities on the U.S. sanctions list.
The article notes that much of Choe’s allegations “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.”
Meta spokeswoman Dani Lever said: “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.”
Choe’s complaints call for the governmental agencies “to investigate whether the company should be fined for sanctions violations, which [Choe’s] legal team argues could amount to tens of millions of dollars.” The article also notes that Choe “could be entitled to a monetary award” since he filed a complaint with the SEC Whistleblower Program, which enables qualified whistleblowers to receive a monetary award of 10-30% of the funds that the government recovers when the total exceeds $1 million. The SEC weighs a number of factors when determining the exact percentage for a whistleblower award.
According to the article, “Choe began warning Facebook officials of groups under sanctions that were using the platforms in August 2021…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.” Emails reviewed by The Post show that Choe sent the Project Denim report to project supervisors “and later that month escalated his findings in emails to Facebook officials including Miranda Sissions, Facebook’s director of human rights.”
Lever said that “the matter was pursued internally,” but “Choe says Facebook took no action on the accounts, which were still active on Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday afternoon.” He told The Post: “It’s a failure of due diligence on a massive scale, a systemic massive scale.”
Choe then turned to the nonprofit organization Whistleblower Aid, which filed the two 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 whistleblower Frances Haugen also filed her whistleblower complaints with the SEC, alleging that the company misrepresented to investors its efforts to combat misinformation. The approach to file complaints with the SEC is based on the novel legal theory that “Facebook is violating U.S. securities laws by misleading the public and shareholders about its handling of criminal and illicit content on the site. This theory has been deployed by several other SEC whistleblowers over the past several years,” previous WNN reporting states.