SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Russian counterpart of an ex-Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia testified Tuesday at his former colleague’s trial that the social media giant expected its media partnerships managers to try to please high-profile users to boost Twitter’s revenue.
Alexey Shelestenko, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen who now lives in Russia, worked with Ahmad Abouammo from 2013 through 2015, when Abouammo departed Twitter. At the time, they were the only media partnerships managers in their respective regions, where they helped big names in government, news and entertainment obtain blue-badge verification for their accounts and promote themselves on the platform. The company had a name for these users: “Very Important Tweeters.”
Shelestenko said the goal was to build relationships with notable figures and get them to use Twitter more. “A media partnerships manager was someone who was working with individuals and organizations that Twitter thought were of value to platform and to the users," he testified. "I was responsible for Twitter in Russia. The more successful I was at my job of talking to our media partners and getting them to tweet more, the more content it would get. The more tweets, the more advertising Twitter could sell and it would get more revenue."
“Does that mean you were expected to work with the Russian government?” Abouammo’s attorney Angela Chuang asked, to which Shelestenko answered “yes.”
Abouammo’s attorneys offered Shelestenko’s testimony to bolster their argument that Abouammo, who managed for media partnerships in the Middle East, was merely doing his job.
Internal Twitter documents displayed to the jury Tuesday showed Twitter expected its managers to be the "key contributor of growth” in their regions, which in Abouammo’s case meant cultivating relationships in Saudi Arabia, one of the top 10 markets for Twitter by number of users.
Shelestenko said he was expected to work with members of the Russian government, including President Vladimir Putin.
"Did you personally agree with every policy of the Russian government?” Chuang asked.
“I did not,” Shelestenko answered.
“So even if you didn't agree with all the government's policies, were you still expected to work with people in the Russian government?” she asked.
“I was,” he replied.
“And was Ahmad expected to work with people in government?” Chuang asked.
“Yes,” Shelestenko said.
Shelestenko said managers would meet in person with VITs whenever possible, and that “it was a very important part” of developing relationships.
Expensive gifts were also customary. Though Twitter had a policy that any gift valued at over $100 had to be reported, Shelestenko said it was rarely followed. “I got a signed soccer ball from a soccer team, a signed jersey from another soccer team," Shelestenko said. "I got to go to a few concerts that were organized by musicians that we were helping at Twitter.” He said he never reported them to management.
When a box of gaming gear showed up at Twitter’s San Francisco office, a token of appreciation from a gaming equipment manufacturer after he helped them obtain blue checkmark verification for some of their key Twitter accounts, Shelestenko testified that he “gave it away to kids who were into gaming" after his manager said he could do whatever he wanted with it.
"Do you recall any partner who reported gifts?" Chuang asked, to which Shelestenko answered, "No, I do not."
His former colleague Abouammo is in trouble for receiving more lavish gifts. Prosecutors say he received $300,000 and a luxury watch after he transferred confidential Twitter user data behind certain dissident accounts to a Saudi official in late 2014 and early 2015.
He faces charges of acting as a foreign agent without notifying the U.S. government, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, and fabricating evidence to cover up his alleged crimes. The government’s theory leans heavily on the conspiracy part of the case and also implicates Ali Alzabarah, another Twitter employee who allegedly accessed even more accounts than Abouammo and fled to Saudi Arabia after he was caught in 2015.