‘It's impossible to get by without them’ How pro-regime bot accounts have spread through Russia's regional election campaigns and even clashed with one another
The investigative media outlet Proekt has published an exposé describing how candidates supportive of the Putin regime are using bots, or hired online commenters, to boost their chances in the September 2019 elections.
According to the new report, designated employees who are “responsible for social media” have appeared on nearly every pro-regime gubernatorial candidate’s campaign roster. Those positions arose following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 campaign, which Proekt described as the first time a regime-aligned candidate actively attempted to “communicate with voters on the Internet.”
However, campaign staffers are not the only ones coordinating “bots” for pro-regime campaigns. Other Putin supporters are also involved in the effort, including former “Nashi” (“Ours”) movement press secretary Kristina Potupchik, pro-Kremlin activist Vladimir Tabak, and three consulting agencies: Mikhailov and Partners, Agency One, and IMA Consulting. According to Proekt, those companies, in turn, hire “troll factories” to write comments for various campaigns online. As one “pro-Kremlin political consultant” told the outlet, “What the bots do is the least significant part of any campaign’s work, but it’s impossible to get by without them.”
Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, told Proekt that using bots is ineffective and therefore not worth pursuing as a campaign tactic. “If somebody’s using them, then, as they say, that’s just throwing money to the winds,” he said.
In St. Petersburg, where Acting Governor Alexander Beglov is running for a full term, the “social media headquarters” charged with hiring social media commenters is located in a business center at 52 Shpalernaya Street, Proekt reported. That address also houses the Charitable Foundation for Family and Childhood Values, which has received multiple government subsidies and grants. The Foundation claims that part of its mission is to research online threats to the health of young people. Proekt’s investigation does not argue that the Foundation is itself responsible for managing pro-Beglov bots, but it does note that the organization posted about job openings for “political scientists,” “political consultants,” and “political columnists” in 2019. The positions offered 50,000 – 60,000 rubles ($796 - $955) per month for a work schedule with overtime built in.
Many other gubernatorial campaigns have relied on bots as well. In the Altai Republic, Oleg Khorokhordin is running for governor, and Kristina Potupchik of Nashi runs his social media operations. In social media groups intended for residents of the republic, Proket found comments made by accounts with stolen photographs (this bot, for example, presumably stole from this original). The commenters praised the regional government and criticized Communist Party politicians.
In some cases, individual accounts have shown up in multiple different regional campaigns. In Kalmykia, for example, a user who supposedly resides in the regional capital and is named Adyk Tulayev has published comments supporting Acting Governor Batu Khasikov even though the same user previously commented in Ukrainian social media groups and claimed to be a resident of that country. A user supposedly named Yelena Feoktistova has commented on current events in Zabaikalsky Krai, Moscow, and Khakassia.
When Proekt’s journalists contacted a consulting agency’s manager under the guise of ordering services for a Moscow City Duma election campaign, the manager said that the company’s fake accounts had to be activated “as early as April” because “accounts that are made a week before the elections are easy to figure out.”
“Proekt found as many as nine commenters in individual social media groups on VKontakte who had initially written primarily about the election campaigns in Khakassia but later began calling on Moscow residents not to open their doors to staffers for independent candidates seeking signatures [for the petitions their campaigns must submit in order to run]. Some of those accounts have also begun commenting on election campaigns in the Zabaikalsky Krai region, and in 2017, they also threw their weight behind the head of the Sevastopol government [in Ukraine],” the journalists wrote.
Sometimes, the fact that bots hired by multiple agencies are asked to support a single candidate leads to misunderstandings among the various accounts. Sources told Proekt that in Moscow and St. Petersburg, pro-regime campaign staffers had encountered comments that did not correspond to their agendas even though they were produced to support their campaigns by troll factories connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin. Beglov’s staff have found that they occasionally “have to clean out” comments from Prigozhin’s bots because they “interfere with the work we’re trying to do,” Proekt reported.
Translation by Hilah Kohen