How a scandal involving an oligarch, a politician, and an escort provider caused a social media censor
February 14 was a day of reckoning for YouTube and Instagram in Russia. The companies faced a deadline to delete photos and videos of Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska on a yacht cruise with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko and escort provider Nastya Rybka (Anastasia Vashukevich). According to a Russian media outlet Vedomosti, the Russian government’s media and telecommunications watchdog agency Roskomnadzor threatened to shut down the platforms in Russia all together if 14 posts and seven videos were not deleted.
Such drastic measures would be unprecedented for large platforms, even in Russia.
On February 8, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny published an open-source investigation about a businessman Oleg Deripaska having a yacht cruise with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and an escort Anastasia Vashukevich. Navalny claimed that the trip could be considered as a bribe to the Deputy Prime Minister.
The investigation used photos and videos that Vashukevich posted on her public Instagram and YouTube channels. Many of the posts in question have since been deleted from her social media channels. Nevertheless, a video compilation from Vashukevich’s Instagram was downloaded from the original source and embedded in Navalny’s investigation.
The allegations of corruption were built on the fact that the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko was on the yacht, too.
The very next day on February 9, Russia government’s media and telecommunications watchdog agency Roskomnadzor ruled the investigation published on Navalny’s website and the YouTube video as forbidden.
The court that issued the ban on spreading the social media content regarding Deripaska’s private life was Ust-Labinsk District Court in Krasnodar kray. According to another video Navalny released in response to the ban, Ust-Labinsk city is Deripaska’s home city, where he pays taxes. The budget income from the businessman’s taxes makes up to two thirds of the city budget.
The social media companies
A YouTube representative spoke to the New York Times (NYT) on Monday, February 12, and said, “YouTube has informed the uploader of the legal notice, but has not told it to take it down.” The anonymous representative also said, “If YouTube were to comply, it would not take down the video from YouTube globally, but block it only on the Russian YouTube site.”
At the time of this report, Instagram and Facebook had not commented publicly on the issue.
On February 12, Oksana Baulina, who was responsible for Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s YouTube channel tweeted a screenshot of an email, in which local YouTube representatives asked Navalny’s team to delete the video of his investigation.
— Oksana Baulina 🤍❤️🤍 (@oksana_baulina) February 12, 2018
The banned content
Many of the original Instagram posts and YouTube videos were deleted, most likely, by Anastasia Vashukevich herself. The only post Vashukevich left on her Instagram account was of herself with Deripaska on the yacht. The text accompanying the image invited 18–23 years old girls to an “Oligarch hunt” training, in which she shared techniques of effective seduction to woo an oligarch.
As Vashukevich explained in another Instagram post, the decision to leave or erase the Instagram post depended on a public vote.
To remove is to support Alexey Navalny and deprive Oleg’s lawsuit to me, blocking the investigation of Navalny. To leave it, means to support Oleg in his lawsuit, but he wants to ban uncontrolled YouTube and Instagram in the territory of Russian Federation.
The post was still available on Vashukevich’s Instagram account on February 14.
Some more screenshots from Vashukevich’s Instagram account were used in Navalny’s video about the investigation.
A couple of screenshots confirmed Vashukevich’s and Deripaska’s connection.
More relevant screenshots were used to visually compare Deripaska’s yacht with the yacht images on Vashukevich’s Instagram account.
@DFRLab identified at least four of seven YouTube videos on Vashukevich’s YouTube channel were not erased despite Roskomnadzor’s ban.
Hijacking the scandal
Deripaska is now suing Vashukevich for publishing materials about his personal life without permission. Nevertheless, on February 8, the day the Navalny’s investigation was launched, Vashukevich published a video on Instagram, in which she claimed that he was raped by a group of men on the yacht.
The next day, Vashukevich posted a screenshot of an article in Cosmopolitan, in which she said her claim of group sexual assault was a joke.
On February 10, Vashukevich posted an Instagram video, which addressed Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the video, she claimed that for two years she manipulated powerful people in Russia and gathered information that might be of Putin’s interest.
On February 11, Vashukevich announced a “casting” for a lawyer.
On February 12, after the story about the lawsuit and social media ban spread both on western and Russian media, Russian presidential candidate Kseniya Sobchak posted her opinion on Instagram and referred to Vashukevich a victim.
In her post, Sobchak said:
Secondly, this story deeply offends me as a woman. My friends, you can not treat a woman as a thing. I would like the general condemnation to be raised not only by the rather obvious fact of corruption, but also by the outrageous behaviour of the authorities who are concerned with the girl with no rights. Whatever the heroine of the disgusting story about “Papa” and “Ruslan” imagines, she is a victim in this story. Why did not one of those who were outraged by the fact of corruption say a word in difense of the girl himself?
In response, Vashukevich wrote:
You see everything in a negative way and you make me a victim! Are they victims now, the sexually ill society attacks healthy oligarch and politician who go fishing and entertain young girls. They give an opportunity to taste their fucking life with them! And everyone is so ready to give in, ready to fight for them.
The social media posts by Nastya Rybka (Anastasia Vashukevich) that were used in Alexey Navalny’s corruption investigation sparked worries that the Russian government’s media and telecommunications watchdog agency Roskomnadzor may take much wider action and shut down YouTube and Instagram in Russia.
The government’s request to remove the 14 Instagram posts and seven YouTube videos in question before February 14 was not been acted on by the time of this report. @DFRLab identified digital traces of six Instagram posts and six YouTube videos banned by Roskomnadzor.
Despite the lawsuit, Vashukevich kept posting provocative posts about the case, yet each was geotagged in United Arab Emirates.
While the case may appear a dispute between a small group of people, the outcome may have nationwide implications. The case made raw the role of social media in exposing uncomfortable evidence, which may cause the censorship of certain social media channels used in Russia all together.
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