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How Instagram became the Achilles’ heel for oligarchs

Jess Alden

Social media is increasingly used to support topical media stories about the ultra wealthy. We discuss the importance of protecting your privacy online.

The mining of social media accounts has been common practice for the media for about a decade now; turning anodyne stories into something more salacious. Extreme wealth has only become the focus of the press since the dawn of the social media age and this will likely only continue.

Most individuals have become savvy to this now; implementing social media based on what they strategically want to share or for some, having no online footprint at some spending thousands on ensuring below the radar standards of privacy.

Acting for executives who want to shield themselves away from privacy intrusion is becoming more and more common, however, no matter how much an executive spends on their own privacy, the postings of immediate family and friends often make these efforts moot.

#yachtwatch has been a popular hashtag on Twitter over the last month or so and so has the sharing of oligarch’s children’s photos on Instagram. Even the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) have turned their eyes to the social media of the wealthy; publishing a graphic depicting the layout of the St Princes Olga and matching the layout of the boat to several photos posted by Igor Sechin’s ex-wife. Similarly, Polina Kovaleva who the government described as Sergei Lavrov’s step-daughter has had her Instagram widely commented on in the context of the sanctions applied to her family. Her social media presence drew attention to her family’s wealth even more so compared to others connected to Russia.

Instagram is often used as a way to facilitate narcissism and this is no less true than in the context of oligarchs and their associations. Whilst pursuing privacy relentlessly, the family members of the oligarchs apparently haven’t been holding their cards as close to their chests. It is understood that Igor Sechin was not connected with a yacht until this investigation by the OCCRP and the Novaya Gazeta.

The Instagram posts likely prompted the investigation, as did Kovaleva’s Instagram. Did this prompt the discussion in the UK as to whether to issue sanctions against her family?

This is quite a novel example, with the OCCRP and the Financial Times amongst the publications to be commenting on Instagram posts – however, the point remains. With all the privacy protections available in the world applied to them, those connected to Putin, Sechin and Lavrov in particular have had their efforts thwarted by the media via their families’ social media accounts. No matter how many shell companies or how convoluted a web of ownership you have, if your family are posting their lavish lifestyle on social media, this provides a primary source link to ownership of the yacht, the houses and the investments.

So what does that mean for the non-oligarchs among us? Privacy is key in the modern age regarding social media, and even more so when considering the implications of the current economic climate. Displays of wealth juxtaposed against mass belt-tightening and rising energy prices will inevitably lead to stories disapprovingly comparing the wealthy with those families struggling to make ends meet. For those who simply want to maintain their privacy, a well rounded review of all risks including those they are connected to is important. This includes not only family but also friends – when mixing in affluent circles, all it takes is one photo to breathe into life allegations of cronyism or corruption. Privacy in this context is therefore not just a nexus around one individual; but needs to be considered in the round of who an individual is connected to too.