Judge Tosses Russian Trolls’ Free Speech Lawsuit Against Facebook

By Anna.Kaplan@thedailybeast.com (Anna Kaplan)
Anton Vaganov/Reuters

A Russian news agency blacklisted by U.S. authorities for its role in 2016 election interference and ties to Kremlin disinformation operations suffered a serious setback in its free speech battle against Facebook on Saturday when a judge tossed its lawsuit claiming its First Amendment rights were violated by the social media giant.

The Federal Agency of News (FAN), an outfit that federal prosecutors describe as a corporate sibling to the notorious Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), filed a lawsuit against Facebook last year seeking unspecified damages and arguing that the company aimed to “silence” it, a “legitimate news organization,” by shutting down its pages in a bid to “deter” its “free speech.”

The lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice Saturday in San Jose Superior District Court by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, who concluded that FAN's current argument “fails” and “lacks merit” because Facebook is neither a state actor nor a public forum, meaning it does not need to adhere to First Amendment protections granted by the U.S. Constitution. Koh did, however, give FAN a 30-day window to file new arguments or provide new evidence, after which a final judgment would be made in Facebook’s favor if no new arguments are made that can sway the court.

Facebook removed FAN’s pages from the platform in April 2018 along with more than 200 other Russian-language accounts because, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the time, “they were controlled by the IRA.”

But FAN, in launching its legal battle against the social media giant, sought to present itself as a free-speech martyr using an argument that has often been echoed by figures on the far right.

“Facebook, while claiming to protect the public from ‘fake news,’ is actually engaging in censorship and denying FAN subscribers of access to a legitimate news publication,” the outlet claimed in its complaint. “Facebook seeks to dictate news content based on its own political view point thereby attempting to influence the public media coverage of internal political events in the Russian Federation.”

As The Daily Beast previously reported, FAN and the Internet Research Agency are key components of Russia’s state-backed propaganda machine. Not only did they operate out of the same building, 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg, but FAN’s chief accountant, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, was indicted in 2018 for her role in what the FBI called “Project Lakhta,” a Kremlin-backed influence campaign on two continents.

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