Russia’s entanglement with American social networks just got decidedly complicated.
Leaked documents obtained by the Guardian (among other outlets) have revealed that two state-owned Russian institutions, the oil giant Gazprom and VTB Bank, funded investments in both Facebook and Twitter through Russia-born tech luminary Yuri Milner’s investment company DST Global. VTB’s contribution was a relatively direct $191 million in shares, while Gazprom’s investment wing backed an “opaque” offshoring company (Kanton) that ended up holding $1 billion in Facebook shares.
Milner acknowledged the investments in chats with the Guardian, but maintained that neither Facebook nor Twitter were told where the funding for the investments had come from. He added that he didn’t know Gazprom had supported the Facebook stake, and that VTB’s backing didn’t give it a say over Twitter’s decisions. The companies at the center of the storm have distanced themselves, too: Facebook said it sold the Gazprom investment 5 years ago, while Twitter said it reviewed all investors before it went public “as a matter of policy.”
Still, the subject is complicated by Milner’s own connections: he funded Jared Kushner’s startup Cadre. Milner denied backing “any political activity” by the President’s son-in-law and said he only met Kushner once, in 2016, but the link certainly doesn’t help matters.
It’s not certain just what Russia was hoping to do by funding the investments. Although it’s tempting to imagine that the Russian government played a long game where it backed social networks it could later use to influence elections, it’s possible that Gazprom and VTB were just hoping to profit by investing in a pair of budding internet properties before they went public. And while Facebook and Twitter weren’t picky about ad revenue sources, that’s not the same as letting investments dictate company policy.
More than anything, the revelations could push Facebook and Twitter to reveal as much as possible about any dealings with Russia, no matter how innocuous they might be. There’s little doubt that Russia tried to influence American voters online, but Congress may want reassurances that social media giants weren’t encouraged to look the other way.