Troll factories? So 2016. How the Moscow government diversified its online election interference strategies this summer
Shortly before Sunday’s elections to the Moscow City Duma, a mass of Russian-language news sites and social media accounts began posting about what they called “Lanovoy’s list.” The outlets all claimed that Vasily Lanovoy, a popular award-winning actor, had compiled a list of the candidates he believed should be elected to the City Duma in every precinct. The idea of such a list was not new: After opposition candidates were blocked en masse from running for the Moscow City Duma, liberal activists led by Alexey Navalny began promoting a “Smart Vote” campaign, which recommended candidates in Moscow’s precincts who were allowed to run but who are not favored by the city’s current regime. Lanovoy’s list was clearly a pro-regime alternative to the Smart Vote strategy, but there was a catch: Vasily Lanovoy soon announced that he hadn’t created the list at all. Meduza discovered that the websites and social media pages that had posted the fake list were all controlled by companies with close ties to Moscow City Hall. Our investigative division followed those ties into a rabbit hole of online state propaganda that makes troll factories look like old news.
It all started with what seemed to be ordinary neighborhood groups on the Russian social media site VKontakte. They had innocent-sounding names like “My Home, Strogino” and “Vykhino FM,” but a couple of days before the September 8 Moscow City Duma elections, dozens of the groups posted identical links to an article announcing that “Lanovoy’s list for the Moscow City Duma elections has been released.” The piece was published by the Moscow government-owned outlet Argumenty i fakty, and each neighborhood group that posted it highlighted the individual candidate Lanovoy supposedly favored for that group’s precinct. The posts kept coming even after Lanovoy made clear that the list wasn’t his.
A closer look reveals that the simultaneous posts should have been no surprise. All of the groups in question are used largely for posting content that stems directly from Moscow City Hall, from announcements about government-run events to links from government-owned news sites.
Thanks to a 2017 investigation by Meduza’s Ivan Golunov, journalists already knew that these supposed neighborhood groups actually belong to a company called Teomedia. The service controls 400 local groups on VKontakte, Instagram, and Facebook, where it posts online content for pay. The company’s contracts are formulated through another firm, “Sosedi Media” (Neighbors Media). A company called “Sosedi” had previously been shown to run pro-government campaigns in the very same local VKontakte groups.
From Sosedi on upward, the ownership of these groups moves along a chain of firms that leads squarely to state-owned institutions: Moscow’s Department of City Property and Moscow State University’s National Research Institute for Social Systems (NIISS). In between is a middleman, Moscow Information Technologies (MIT), that has held responsibility for much of the city’s expanded propaganda campaign this summer.
Companies like MIT receive large contracts and subsidies from Moscow government agencies to provide “informational and analytical support in the development and implementation of citywide projects and programs.” Often, Meduza found, they compete against each other in pseudo-competitive contract auctions. For example MIT (whose daughter company owns 99 percent of Sosedi) recently beat out Krasnye Palaty (which owns 1 percent of Sosedi) for a 39 million-ruble ($595,170) contract. Subsidies from Moscow City Hall’s Department of Media and Advertising have proven to be even more lucrative for this chain of companies, which have received hundreds of millions of rubles for “the production and distribution of informational and analytical products.”
The leaders of the companies involved in this scheme did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment. When we messaged one of the neighborhood groups that posted about Lanovoy’s list, its administrator said the group was not owned by Sosedi. However, when we asked about the relationship between Sosedi Media, which sells advertisementss in the group, and Sosedi itself, our correspondent was blocked by all of Sosedi Media’s groups simultaneously.
Moscow’s local propaganda ecosystem
Sosedi and the groups associated with it may have brought Lanovoy’s list into view on social media, but they don’t control the state-owned news outlets that first wrote about it. Those websites and online newspapers form yet another government-controlled infrastructure base: Moscow has 142 neighborhoods in 12 districts, and each of those official divisions has a news site. Together, those websites make up a single information ecosystem that operates under Moscow City Hall’s control, but Russia’s media regulation and censorship agency issues separate licenses to each one. This, in turn, means that news aggregators like Yandex News interpret the websites as separate news sources.
That’s a circumstance Moscow’s government often uses to its advantage, diluting negative coverage by flooding the web with positive stories. For example, while thousands of protesters marched through central Moscow on March 26, 2017, the top news item on Yandex News was about a spring festival that all of the city’s official news sites had covered simultaneously.
Multiple private contractors receive significant portions of their income from producing those official local outlets. The largest among them, IMA Consulting, often “competes” against its own subordinate entities for contracts much like the media service MIT. That’s not the only connection between the two companies: In practice, the editors and journalists who work for IMA Consulting simply fill out templates with language sent to them through MIT that comes directly from City Hall curators.
That language comes in the form of a weekly directive that gives detailed instructions on what local news outlets should cover, from specific events where Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin is scheduled to make an appearance to highly detailed talking points. In 2017, current Meduza investigations editor Alexey Kovalev found that City Hall even ordered local news sites to repeat the words “Moscow” and “Sobyanin” three times each in every story about the city’s mayor. Sources within Moscow’s local media outlets confirmed to Meduza that abstract phrases like “the production and distribution of informational and analytical products” are actually a cover-up for very concrete instructions like the “Three Moscows, three Sobyanins” rule.
Diversifying agitation schemes
The backbone of Moscow’s local government media environment has been known to Russian journalists for a couple of years, but the Lanovoy list incident also shed light on a new set of online schemes. Some of those initiatives were developed specifically for the purpose of promoting the Moscow government’s interests ahead of the September 8 City Duma elections.
This new side of the story begins with the fact that articles about “Lanovoy’s list” weren’t just posted in social media groups that are controlled by the Moscow government or even by social media accounts created for the express purpose of pro-government trolling. Instead, popular social groups like Typical Moscow, My Moscow, and Interesting Moscow also spread news briefs about Lanovoy’s supposed electoral preferences and the Moscow City Duma elections more generally. They consistently used the hashtag #окМосгордума (#okMosgorduma).
Some of those posts even included video advertisements designed to shame Muscovites who “let others choose for them,” presumably by following Navalny’s Smart Vote plan. In one clip, a couple allows their taxi driver to choose a location for their date rather than choosing one themselves. He ultimately drops them off next to an empty field with a sign that says “Dyrsk,” which falls somewhere between “Shitholetown” and “Middle-of-Nowhereville” in translation.
Unlike troll factories or state-controlled news outlets, the social media groups that posted the “Date in Dyrsk” video were not acting under Moscow City Hall’s supervision. Instead, they were simply paid off: The groups regularly charge fees for sponsored posts. One group administrator told Meduza that he would estimate City Hall’s spending on posts in non-state-controlled groups at up to a million rubles per day.
Popular social media groups weren’t the only unexpected forum to begin hosting waves of government advertising in the weeks leading up to the election. Ads for pro-government news sites also started appearing on torrenting and pirating sites where ads for erotic games or online casinos used to be. Clicking on the ads led users to articles that bashed unpermitted protests, praised the civility of Russian police (while highlighting the brutality of their Western counterparts), and promoted pro-regime candidates.
Meduza even found a block of these advertisements on addic7ed.com, one of the most popular portals for downloading subtitles to pair with pirated TV shows and films. The site is registered in France and attracts about 8 million visitors every month. Only 4 percent of those visitors log on from Russia as a whole, let alone Moscow.
Some of the banner ads linked to sources that at least maintain a front of legitimacy, including the wire service TASS and the Moscow government’s Argumenty i fakty. Other ads led to websites controlled by the Federal News Agency (FAN), which is reportedly controlled by “Putin’s chef” Evgeny Prigozhin and linked to his infamous troll factory. Sources close to Prigozhin said the businessman had decided to dedicate extra resources to the election campaign on his own initiative without any direct government involvement.
One final set of new campaigns in this election cycle’s information machine used specially purchased web domains. Some of the banner ads that appeared on pirating sites this summer linked to smartvote.moscow, which echoed the name of Navalny’s election strategy but was actually created by pro-regime political strategist Pavel Danilin. The highest number of banner ads sent users to vestihome.ru and freshpaper.ru, both of which were registered in February 2018 through the same hosting provider. The two websites were dedicated to lobbing election fraud accusations at opposition candidates. We were unable to find any contact information for either site.
One specially created website even had a physical presence. The Cyrillic domain недопускай.москва (nedopuskai.moskva) played on a popular protest slogan: “Dopuskai,” or “Let them through ” (that is, let opposition candidates through to the elections). “Nedopuskai,” in turn, means “Don’t let them through.” The nedopuskai project was advertised on social media, and young men wearing bright green #nedopuskai gear showed up at demonstrations against political repressions. Open Media found that the nedopuskai site was registered to the digital department head of IMA Consulting, the very same company that produces many of Moscow’s official local news outlets. IMA Consulting has not responded to a request for comment.
English summary by Hilah Kohen