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There's a good chance that pro-Kremlin ‘bots’ are trying to vote down footage of the Kemerovo fire and shift blame away from state officials

Meduza

Internet users have noticed unusually large numbers of “dislikes” on videos related to Sunday’s deadly fire at the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo, recalling the orchestrated campaigns on YouTube against videos like those by Alexey Navalny that criticize or embarrass the government. Activists on social media have also discovered that many of the unkind comments left on videos from Kemerovo were written by so-called “Kremlin bots.”

On the afternoon of March 26, the “Nablyudateli” (Observers) community on Vkontakte noted a flood of “Kremlin bots” reacting to a Moskva 24 television report shared on YouTube about the Kemerovo fire. The short news bulletin had only 74 likes and at least 1,000 dislikes.

Other videos relating to the fire at the shopping center in Kemerovo also had strangely high numbers of down-votes. For example, a video titled, “Relatives of Kemerovo residents missing in the fire at the ‘Winter Cherry’ shopping center complain to the authorities” had 2,200 dislikes and only 1,600 likes. At the time of this writing, another video from Moskva 24 was one of the top “trending” videos on YouTube in Russia, and it currently has 3,900 likes and 3,100 dislikes. The “Nablyudateli” community points to 11 other videos with large numbers of dislikes — several of which also appeared on YouTube’s “Trending” list.

The number of dislikes on popular videos in Russia often spikes with content shared by prominent opposition activists like Alexey Navalny, whose investigative reports frequently criticize and embarrass top state officials. Mediazona chief editor Sergey Smirnov, who hosts the “Things Will Get Worse” show on the “Navalny Live” YouTube channel, noted that the number of dislikes on his videos has sometimes exceeded the number of views.

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Metabot, a browser extension created by “Nablyudateli,” highlights comments on YouTube supposedly made by “Kremlin bots.” On videos shared on Sunday and Monday about the fire in Kemerovo, the extension finds dozens of comments from suspicious accounts. Here are just a few of the messages posted by presumed “Kremlin bots” under one Moskva 24 video:

  • “This is terrifying! The mall’s management must take responsibility for this, along with the developers.”
  • “The building management has been utterly negligent. There was no [public] announcement about the fire. What else is there to say! The mall’s management didn't even check all the emergency exits were open! The swine!”
  • “Well, let's wait to hear what the experts say, what's the point in speculating, though I think it was negligence by the mall’s management, because there was no fire alarm.”
  • “What was the mall’s management up to? This is what you get with this kind of negligent attitude.”
  • “It's a nightmare… People are trying to break down a metal door with their bare hands. Did the architect or manager feel good when they built this Pandora's Box?”

The user who left the last comment, “Devid Kopperfild,” also commented on other videos about the fire, writing elsewhere, “It's an awful tragedy. You wouldn't wish it even on an enemy…. I'm sure the families of the dead will get the appropriate support!” On another video, he wrote, “No windows…. No doors. Bloody architects. What were they thinking, building their dumb box?” This user has two subscribers and has never upload a single video to YouTube.

The most popular videos on YouTube have come from “Moskva 24.” According to the Nablyudateli community, the accounts marked in red are suspected “Kremlin bots.” To the right of the account names, you can see the dates the accounts were created.
The most popular videos on YouTube have come from “Moskva 24.” According to the Nablyudateli community, the accounts marked in red are suspected “Kremlin bots.” To the right of the account names, you can see the dates the accounts were created.

Another YouTube user categorized as a “Kremlin bot” by “Nablyudateli” wrote beneath a REN TV video: “Oppositionists are trying to capitalize on human grief for PR purposes. You people are scum!!” Such revealing comments, however, are rare.

Story by Sultan Suleimanov, translation by Peter Marshall