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How Putin Secretly Conquered Russia's Social Media Over the Past 3 Years

Vladimir Putin at a press conference on December 18, 2014. Kremlin press service, public domain.

Vladimir Putin at a press conference on December 18, 2014. Kremlin press service, public domain.

When I visit the United States, I’m often asked how bad is it to live in Putin's Russia. Knowing that I work at an independent television channel (www.tvrain.ru), the people asking me this question probably expect horror stories about the daily nightmare I endure under the pressure of a totalitarian regime.

Responding can be awkward, because I have to disappoint such expectations, as I’m not able to portray my life in Russia in such simplistic, black-and-white terms.

Many aspects of living in Russia are strangely difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced life here. There is a huge gap—a canyon of hypocrisy—between what's official and what's real, and you’re supposed to know what you can’t say aloud. (Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan” is largely about this phenomenon.)

For instance, you can’t say Russia has no independent media; I work at an independent TV station, after all. But the Devil is in the details, and, in this case, we’re hopelessly outgunned. What’s happened in Russia would be like Fox News taking over the airwaves in the US, booting MSNBC from cable TV, and reducing liberals to broadcasting online from a small private apartment in Brooklyn.

This farce is the same with elections (where competition is fake), the courts (where justice is a lie), and mass demonstrations (where participation is obligatory).

For many years, the Internet was Russia’s last beacon of honesty. That’s no longer the case. Over the past three years, a social-media army fielded by the Kremlin has stormed what was once a stronghold for people who seek a “Russia without Putin.”

Here’s how it happened.

Before the 2011 parliamentary elections, the phoniness of which sent as many as 100,000 protesters into the streets, the Kremlin couldn’t care less about political significance of social media and the Internet. The government’s puppet master of domestic politics, a man named Vladislav Surkov, was content merely to funnel cash to top bloggers, paying them to publish planted stories on LiveJournal from time to time.

When the winter protests began in December 2011, the new social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, were under the complete control of Putin’s political opponents, who knew it and unsurprisingly built vast networks to organize demonstrations against the fraudulent elections.

After two mass rallies in Moscow against the parliamentary election results, Surkov lost his job in the Kremlin, following his obvious failure to contain the Internet. His replacement is Vyacheslav Volodin, a less cerebral man known for his rough-and-ready management style.

Volodin is said to have only a weak grasp of the digital world, but others with a better understanding are believed to have his ear. In 2012, Volodin promoted some of these Internet-savvy advisers to a special unit inside the Kremlin’s Department of Internal Policy. He put Timur Prokopenko, a young man in his thirties with experience working for pro-Kremlin youth movements, in charge of the outfit.

At first, the Kremlin’s social media team simply copied whatever the Russian opposition did online. If Putin’s rivals criticized him with hashtags, Putin’s people would respond instantly with hashtags targeting Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. When this method of retaliation proved too obvious and primitive, the Kremlin’s social media team moved on to other tactics.

They tried spamming social media with “bot” accounts, though networks like Twitter were quick to recognize it and intervene. The Kremlin’s team then turned to its activists in the regions, outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, whom they’d largely overlooked in the past. Now they recruited these people to serve as living, breathing bots. Imagine it: young men and women across Russia enlisted to do nothing but promote trending topics on Twitter and troll the liberal media on Facebook.

My contact at Twitter has indicated to me that they’re powerless to intervene against such accounts, as it is indeed real people running them. The workaround to a bot army, the Kremlin has discovered, is a troll army.

Of course, even tapping the regions’ stores of pro-Kremlin activists wasn’t enough. What started with dozens of re-purposed boy scouts grew to hundreds, but there it hit a ceiling. When that happened, Putin’s team approached Russian advertisers. According to my sources, there are currently 10 different advertising agencies working for the Kremlin. These contracts are secret, and the firms are careful to maintain other, non-political clients.

The agencies compete fiercely with one another for contract extensions and bigger deals, making Russia’s online propaganda industry quite lucrative and surprisingly effective. It’s like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” except the opposite.

Combined, these efforts field a troll army of thousands. In some areas, like on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, the enterprise is so big that there are whole office buildings for these people.

It seems like a joke, but thousands of hired bloggers “go to work” every day, writing online about Vladimir Putin’s greatness and the decay of the West. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, news sites, and anywhere else the Kremlin feels threatened and outnumbered. Fresh instructions arrive every day in emails, specifying what to say and where to post it, all with the aim of bolstering Putin’s presidency amidst war and economic crisis.

Sadly, it’s working. People have trouble believing the scope of the Kremlin’s Internet invasion, thinking it incredulous that the government could be capable of such sophisticated, targeted manipulation. And yet that is exactly what Putin’s social media team has achieved.

Of course, conquering the Internet has been a lot easier, after the dramatic reduction of independent media outlets in Russia—a phenomenon known as the “f#cking chain.” The Kremlin’s social media takeover has at last reached the people who don’t watch state-run television. The circle is now complete.

The system works like this: trolls flood a comments section with scripted complaints against the West or the liberal opposition, and the state-run media then reports these comments as “bloggers’ outrage,” fueling further conversations online, building what becomes an organic/artificial mix. In this way, Putin’s team is able to impose its agenda even on the Russian Internet’s liberal ghetto.

Based on the success of this model in Russia, the Kremlin is now investing heavily in “exporting” it to social media popular in Europe and the United States.

If you live in the West, beware.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Global Voices or RuNet Echo.
  • Beware of Trolls

    If you have a look at a Western discussion forum where they discuss Russia-related topics, you’ll find a lot of “John Pipkins” or “Tom Siskins” writing something like: “I’m not pro-Putin, but Crimea should be Russian”.
    A troll’s salary is about 500$.

  • Pingback: How Putin Secretly Conquered Russia’s Social Media Over the Past 3 Years · Global Voices - Trendingnewsz.com()

  • Dušan Radosavljević

    trolls are just more fodder for my Western vitriol. Bring on the Olgas and Ivans!

  • John B Gorentz

    I ran into one the other day who was going after Kasparov. Navalny and and others we talked about had respect, he said, because they were inside Russia, but Kasparov had no guts. Typical Alinskyite divide and conquer techniques. Isolate the target, and this time the target was Kasparov.

    I think he missed the point that the real gutless wonder is Putin, who is also working from the outside if he has to put up a media shield to protect himself from the Russian people. Well, since this was a paid troll I wouldn’t expect him to admit such a point. The usual technique is to fend off logic with misdirection. But still, it doesn’t hurt to shake their inner confidence.

  • Joe Hill

    This demonstrates why Putin’s regime will inevitably fail. They would rather spend untold amounts of money on paying people to cover for their failures than just go out and fix the goddamned roads, post office, infrastructure, etc.

    • Joseph

      You’re really talking about the U.S. right?

      • Joe Hill

        Yeah it’s the US whose currency just dropped through the floor, whose GDP growth is near zero, whose entire destiny is tied to one man, and which is facing double digit inflation with no end to the crisis in sight, right?

    • Frustrated Troll

      http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-01-23/putin-s-propaganda-industry-tightens-its-belt

      It seems these amounts of money are not so generous any more. A quote from the article:
      “The journalists who were tempted with above-market pay two or three years ago, and who are now being tossed unceremoniously into the street in the midst of an economic crisis, will realize they were needed only to help plow over the previous media landscape and establish the government monopoly on information. Now their job is done, and the Kremlin’s generosity is, too”.
      Ouch!

      • Thomas Alan

        Oh, yes. I noticed a sharp drop in the number of Putin trolls on January 26. Before that date the trolls would be blogging multiple times a day every day, then, most of them just stopped. The that is Karma, working it’s magic. There still are trolls, but much fewer of them.

  • Inferno_Man

    The sell-outs moderating the site http://www.zerohedge.com are surely Putin’s paid whores s well. I bet they get more than $500 to stroke Putin’s ego and regions lower.

  • damik

    Do not worry. Putler perhaps got a first round. But the Russian economy is dead and Ukraine is a new Stalingrad for Putler. Now even Belarus is turning away …

    Putler lost by winning as the rest of the world does not like assholes … :) :) :)

    • а тебе пидору укропному недолго скакать осталось….твою авку обтруханную вычислить как 2пальца…

      • damik

        Learn some foreign language; English is a good start …

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p2aT5Fr06E

        • James Winston Smith

          This entire thread is .gov and Kiev paid (read: US taxpayer funded) trolls all talking to each other. This American finds it hilarious and infuriating at the same time that I have to pay for this crap.

          • damik

            We in the West do not need trolls as we are free and democratic sociaty of citizens.

            We are not like Putler who through the election fraud got 99.4% of votes in Chechnya. Where he murdered 150k of Chehens … :(

  • damik

    Other problem Putler has is his stupid propaganda. Anybody in West can see just in 5s how it is made up.

    Like Putler is great leader, etc. Nobody in the West glorify politicians. Ever!

    But Putler Fascist slaves just do not get it … :) :) :)

    • Joseph

      You are either a paid troll or just one dumb cunt. Actually, I suppose the two are not mutually exclusive.

      • damik

        Putler Fascists giving me a lesson … :) :) :)

        • Joseph

          Obomber ultra-fascist troll spreading that propaganda. How much do they pay? Does the job come with good benefits?

          • damik

            Obama did not win elections like Putler the Fascist 99.4% in Chechnya. Obama does not need to pay people.

            We are free citizens and lough at morons like Putler the Fascist :) :) :)

          • Joseph

            Chechnya, huh? Where the U.S. backed more of its Islamic fundamentalist terrorists to destabilize Russia?

            U.S. electoral extravaganzas are the most ridiculous farce in the world, costing billions of dollars. Effective propaganda and brainwashing don’t come cheap.

          • damik

            US does not care about Russia. It is a place with destroyed economy, which exports only raw materials …

          • Stefan Ivanov

            I love how the putinbots always like their own comments to make it look like someone actually agrees with them. So sad.

  • idiocy

  • damik

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