Last week, RuNet Echo published “Social Network Analysis Reveals Full Scale of Kremlin's Twitter Bot Campaign,” the first installment of a two-part series by social scientist Lawrence Alexander. The research caused quite a stir in Russia, where several major media outlets reported summaries of Alexander’s findings. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s organization Open Russia even interviewed Anton Nossik, one of the world’s foremost RuNet experts, about Alexander’s work, asking Nossik to explain the significance of Russian bot networks and their legacy in the modern history of Kremlin politics.
RuNet Echo presents Open Russia‘s interview with Anton Nossik, translated from Russian into English. (See here for the original interview in Russian.)
Open Russia: Why do the authorities continue to use bots and other similar technologies for promoting their propaganda and political agenda on the Internet? Why don’t they mobilize their real supporters online? This is more efficient, after all, and it would avoid all these scandals.
Anton Nossik: About ten years ago, when all this started, the authorities didn’t have many real supporters online. And it was hard to find bloggers for hire who were ready to spread the Putin love. The answer was the emergence of this huge service that promoted Putin love for money, and it was run by [former pro-Kremlin youth-group leaders] Vasily Yakemenko and Kristina Potupchik.
Today, years later, it’s probably safe to say there’s a contingent of Internet users who sympathize with the Kremlin entirely for free. But the problem is that some people have been suckling at the state budget for a decade, getting funding to “love the Motherland” and “take the fight to the enemy.” And under no circumstances are these people going to refuse this money.
So, on one hand, it seems as though the Kremlin actually pulled it off: a genuinely pro-Putin segment of Internet users has appeared, and there’s no longer any need to simulate it. But these people still need the work. How are they supposed to live without it? And that’s why it will all continue.
Open Russia: And what’s the value of this particular research completed by [Lawrence] Alexander? After all, we already knew about the troll factories, which started operating in the Olgino area of Saint Petersburg, and then on Savushkina street, and about people like Potupchik and others.
Anton Nossik: Yes, of course, we in Russia already knew about all these trolls, bots, and ways of inflating online numbers. We in Russia know the rates they charge, their daily workload, their personnel list, and their salaries. But the fact that this phenomenon has become noticeable even to foreign researchers—this shows a certain global development in thinking about the people of Russia. As you know, it wouldn’t even occur to a normal person living in a civilized country that the government might fund its own praise on Twitter by spending tax money on phony accounts.
Now, when people in the West read Alexander’s research, they’ll see how our system works. It’s useful and it’s important that the world understands that the Russian authorities rely on Internet fraud. People all around the world should draw a distinction between the Russian authorities and the country’s population.