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.