LGBT activists have since February been pushing the city and state of New York to divest of holdings connected to the Russian social network VKontakte (VK) because it hosts the pages of hundreds of Neo-Nazi and anti-LGBT groups — but New York isn’t budging.
Duncan Obsorne, a member of LGBT rights protest group Queer Nation, told BuzzFeed the group met with both State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and City Comptroller Scott Stringer in April to discuss their holdings tied to VKontakte, which hosts hundreds of pages belonging to groups like Occupy Pedophilia, which entraps gay men to torture them on camera.
California’s state pension fund, CalPERS, responded to similar prodding from other LGBT activists and has sold $20 million shares in Mail.ru, which owns a 52 percent share of VKontakte and is owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, the Financial Times reported Friday. Queer Nation helped CalPERS research and investigate material on VK that lead to the fund’s decision to divest.
CalPERS’ head of corporate governance, Anne Simpson, told the Financial Times “Calpers is not the first group to say, good grief, that is not acceptable. The internet is not there to be a platform for persecution.”
While outrage over Russia’s growing crackdown on LGBT rights grew in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in February, activists largely failed to get multinational corporations sponsoring the Games to use their clout to push back on Russia’s anti-LGBT crackdown. CalPERS, which is recognized as one of the most aggressive public funds in considering social and environmental factors in its investments, is taking this step as the federal government ramps up sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
Queer Nation also called on the New York state and city pension funds to sell their shares in Usmanov’s telecom company, MegaFon. They each own around 22,000 global depository receipts, certificates on the London Stock exchange that represent shares of a foreign company. The state comptroller’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Osborne of Queer Nation said: “They were certainly receptive to what we were proposing, but we’ve not heard anything further from that meeting.”
Eric Sumberg, a spokesman for the city comptroller, said, “The comptroller’s office met with Queer Nation to discuss their concerns relating to corporate sexual orientation discrimination policies and any holdings connected to these websites. Those discussions are ongoing.”
Queer Nation has been trying to use financial leverage to pressure VKontakte to shut down the hate groups, which continue to operate their pages although access to some has since been blocked from computers in the United States. In March an April, Queer Nation’s Duncan Osborne said, Queer Nation also requested action from investment firms with interests in Mail.ru including Schroeder Investment Management, Capital Group, Fidelity Investments, and BlackRock. They also demanded action from U.S. companies that advertise on VKontakte, including Coca Cola, Proctor and Gamble, Burger King, and Yum Brands, which owns of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.
Osborne said VKontakte should be of particular concern to McDonalds, since several pictures already appear on the pages of hate groups featuring its products.
“There is an obvious moral argument for taking the pages down and an obvious financial argument for taking those pages down,” Osborne said.
None of the firms contacted by Queer Nation immediately responded to BuzzFeed’s request for comment, but to Queer Nation’s knowledge, none have pulled their advertising from the site. Osborne provided a message received from Coca Cola’s chief diversity officer, John Lewis, who said the company would ask VKontakte not to run its ads on pages of hate groups, but it would continue to advertise on the site.
“In Russia, among the many ways that we are connecting with consumers is through the social media site vk.com,” Lewis wrote. “We will continue to demonstrate our support of the LGBT community and, more broadly, promote our values for diversity through our policies and actions,” he said, through gestures like a commercial that aired during the Sochi Olympics that briefly showed what appears to be a same-sex couple as part of a montage highlighting America’s diversity.
The pressure to divest comes as VKontakte’s founder, Pavel Durov, was ousted in a leadership shakeup he says leaves the company “under the complete control” of Putin allies.