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New investigative report explains how the Kremlin conquered Russia's Telegram channels

In a new investigative report for the website Proekt, journalists Mikhail Rubin and Roman Badanin explain “how the authorities turned Telegram into television” by colonizing and buying out the medium. Rubin and Badanin say Kremlin officials were initially worried about the influence of Telegram channels on Russia's political system, and in late 2016 they started leaking insider scoops to certain journalists, to see where on the network the information emerged. Instead, the Kremlin quickly discovered that the people behind these channels are generally “scam artists” capitalizing on Russia’s “information shortage” by “creating the illusion that certain informed insiders” would tell the truth behind online nicknames. Ironically, nobody more than state officials themselves wanted this to be true. Meduza summarizes Rubin and Badanin's Proekt report.

How do Telegram channels manage to fool people into believing they have inside access? Rubin and Badanin say administrators steal wantonly from newspapers, experts, and columnists, repackaging news the moment it’s published elsewhere, before most readers ever see it at its point of origin.

“The main secret behind the authorities’ success on Telegram was the channels’ unbelievable venality,” argue Rubin and Badanin. Preparations for the March 2018 presidential election fueled the Kremlin’s push into Telegram channels and justified spending several hundred million rubles. The work itself was subcontracted to former “Nashi” Kremlin youth activists, led by the group’s former spokesperson, Kristina Potupchik, who calls herself an independent contractor, has a new office near Staraya Square (near the presidential administration building), and apparently owns something called the Open New Democracy Foundation. Some of the channels under Potupchik’s supervision allegedly include Akitilop, Ortega, and Polnyi P. Her team reportedly includes the following former Nashists: Andrey Zharikov, Dmitry Kiryan, and Alexander Chernoudov. Former Kremlin official Konstantin Kostin’s Civil Society Development Foundation apparently works for the Putin administration on Telegram, as well, handling Metodichka, Minpravdy, and Davydov.Index. Former blogger and long-time Kostin colleague Stanislav Apetyan helps manage these channels, according to Proekt.

Rubin and Badanin say they verified their sources’ claims by contacting the administrators of several major Telegram channels, posing as content buyers. They say Nezygar offered to publish virtually anything for enough money: 1.5 Bitcoins (currently $6,300) for posts more than 100 words, and 0.008 Bitcoins ($33) per word for shorter posts. Proekt reached administrators at other channels with even more convoluted prices with elaborate posting and reposting options.

In undercover negotiations with the channel Karaulny, Rubin and Badanin discovered that administrators abide by a “stop list” that prohibits any promoted stories that negatively target any member of Russia’s Security Council or mention anything at all about senior Kremlin staff, especially First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. The stop list generally only applies to “niche topics,” not widely reported stories, and Proekt speculates that the Telegram channels enforcing these rules are either under the control of Kremlin loyalists or their administrators have been paid to stay away from certain issues.

Since Putin’s reelection, the Kremlin has apparently lost some interest in Telegram, shifting its attention more to monitoring WhatsApp and Viber for negative commentary about the government. Telegram remains a battleground, but mostly for infighting between different bureaucratic groups.

For example, Rubin and Badanin describe a meeting earlier this summer between Aram Gabrelyanov and Stepan Kovalchuk, after the former’s falling out with Yuri “Putin’s personal banker” Kovalchuk. At the meeting, Stepan reportedly seized control over Gabrelyanov’s last media asset: the Mash Telegram channel and its 450,000 subscribers.

In the fall of 2017, meanwhile, writer Eduard Bagirov and pro-Kremlin pundit Marina Yudenich reportedly convinced Rosneft to get involved in Telegram and buy the channel Karaulny for 10 million rubles ($149,000). After this sale, the channel stopped reporting anything negative about the company, and started attacking Rosneft’s enemies when the company’s profits were threatened. For example, when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak suggested price controls on oil, Karaulny started reposting attacks on Kozak.

So who’s behind Nezygar, the channel that got the Kremlin interested in Telegram? This summer and fall, Khakassia Governor Viktor Zimin’s reelection team traced Nezygar to someone named Vladislav Klyushin, who attended their meetings as a specialist from the Defense Ministry. It turns out that Klyushin also owns the company “M 13,” which developed the “Katyusha” media-monitoring system used by the Defense Ministry and presidential administration. M 13 is also trying to replace its older competitor, “Medialogia.” First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov reportedly promotes M 13 products within the government and has indicated in meetings that he has placed information in Nezygar.

Read the whole report from Proekt (in Russian) here.

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

Photo on front page: Pixabay