Incoming, trolls Thousands of suspicious accounts target Russian opposition figures linked to Alexey Navalny on Instagram
Thousands of suspicious Instagram accounts have begun following Russian opposition figures linked to jailed anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny. This comes after his Anti-Corruption Foundation published a major investigation about a billion-dollar luxury mansion built for Vladimir Putin on the Black Sea. The same bots are also targeting the accounts of independent Russian media outlets en masse, in what appears to be an attempt to get them blocked from Instagram ahead of the rallies in support of Navalny planned for this upcoming Saturday.
The short version
Thousands of bots descended upon the Instagram accounts of Russian opposition figures — and several independent media outlets — on the night of Wednesday, January 20. Georgy Alburov, an employee of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), was one of the first to report an influx of suspicious new followers. Russian opposition figure Lyubov Sobol (another FBK employee) also reported the very same fake accounts flooding into her social media following, as did Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh.
Reportedly, fake users also began targeting the social media accounts of various Team Navalny offices across the country. The civil society organization Open Russia has been targeted too, as have the independent media outlets Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd, and MBX Media, as well as its regional affiliates.
The full story
“It’s all hands on deck at the troll factory! Several thousand bots joined our Instagram. Apparently, they’re trying to get pages blocked,” reported Team Navalny’s St. Petersburg office on Wednesday night. The office’s staff then proceeded to lock their account temporarily. Team Navalny’s office in Samara also came under attack: “Apparently, the troll factory has been repurposed and is now working to get pages blocked.”
According to the news site Znak.com, similar reports came from Team Navalny offices in several other Russian cities, including Belgorod, Vladivostok, Volgograd, Kemerovo, Pskov, Rostov-on-Don, Tambov, Tyumen, Cheboksary, and Yaroslavl.
The civil society organization Open Russia wrote about the same issue on its Telegram channel after 3,000 bots tried to follow their Instagram in one night. According to Open Russia, the other accounts subject to the attack also saw an influx of about 3,000 suspicious followers. “All of the accounts are empty, their names contain a strange combination of letters and numbers. They are definitely made for mass following,” the organization said.
MBX Media also reported that “inactive users with similar names” began following their Instagram — and the accounts of their regional affiliates — en masse on Wednesday night, noting that the users’ Instagram handles “almost always included numbers.” The outlet responded by setting all of their accounts to private temporarily. MBX Media also specified that the bots mainly followed their regional pages, though their main account was receiving an average of two follow requests per minute.
The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported a bot attack on its Instagram, as well. “We’re sure that this is being done in the lead-up to the 23rd, in order to block our work,” Novaya Gazeta wrote on Twitter, referring to the countrywide rallies in support of Navalny planned for this upcoming Saturday (in Moscow, a “Free Navalny!” rally is set to begin at Pushkin Square at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 23).
The independent television network Dozhd (TV Rain) also reported that “suspicious accounts with the same types of photographs and names in both the Cyrillic and Latin [alphabets]” had begun following their Instagram en masse. Since then, Dozhd has set its Instagram account to private and decided to review each new follower request manually.
What does this mean?
It’s possible that these fake accounts were trying to get opposition figures and independent media outlets blocked from Instagram. Mikhail Klimarev, the director of the “Internet Protection Society,” shared this theory on his Telegram channel ZaTelekom. “A lot of fake accounts subscribe to an account and then, apparently, they plan to file a massive number of complaints with the aim of [getting] an automatic response from Instagram and blocks,” Klimarev explained. He also invited anyone who has been blocked from the platform to contact him for help.
The bot attacks began after Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published a major investigation into a billion-dollar “palace” supposedly built for Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Black Sea. Construction of the complex was allegedly financed through a corruption scheme linked to state-controlled and private companies associated with members of Putin’s inner circle. The president’s spokesman has denied all reports about “Putin’s palace.” All the same, the video version of the investigation racked up 25 million views within 24 hours of its release.
Translation by Eilish Hart