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’Teachers, sales, family — no hot-button issues’ The Kremlin’s favorite fake news factory launches its own polling company
In September, Meduza published an investigation into a nonprofit called Dialogue, which has been pivotal in spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation since its creation in 2019. Now, the organization has reportedly spun off its polling division, which for years has conducted shoddy online surveys and billed the results as meaningful public opinion data, into a separate entity that its leaders hope will aid their ambitions of becoming a one-stop shop for the government’s PR needs. Meduza special correspondents Svetlana Reiter and Andrey Pertsev explain.
In August 2023, Russia’s government-backed and pro-Kremlin media outlets began reporting on Internet surveys from a previously unknown company called Weber. The surveys covered a wide variety of topics. Among other things, they purported to have found that:
- 89 percent of Russians consider “family” to be a “primary value,” while 93 percent said the same about “security,” and 94 percent about “health”;
- 72 percent of Russians met their “first love” in school;
- 66 percent of Russians have a favorable view of bargain sales and believe in the “reality of the discounts” offered to them; and
- 64 percent of Russians do not believe that artificial intelligence will be able to replace teachers.
According to articles that cite Weber’s surveys, the company was created by a nonprofit organization called Dialogue and its subsidiary Dialogue Regions. A past investigation by Meduza found that these entities are responsible for thousands of government social media accounts, Defense Ministry PR campaigns, and countless fake news stories about Ukraine.
A source close to the Putin administration previously told Meduza that Internet polling is an integral part of Dialogue’s work and that reports on the results of the organization’s surveys sometimes reach Putin himself.
However, even the president’s team is skeptical of the results’ accuracy. Because the surveys are conducted exclusively online and are distributed through government social media pages, they provide only “a specific snapshot of a certain segment [of the population], not thorough studies,” said a source close to the Kremlin.
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According to Meduza’s sources, Dialogue CEO Vladimir Tabak has been “called out” numerous times for the quality of his “research.” “He has quite a few detractors: the Federal Protective Service (FSO) has its own surveys, the security forces prefer VTsIOM [the Russian Public Opinion Research Center], and the presidential envoys and governors need real surveys, not Internet ones,” one source said.
Multiple sources close to the Kremlin and one source close to the Russian government told Meduza that Weber was explicitly created to “counter this criticism” and ensure that Dialogue can keep working with the president’s administration and other government agencies: “The idea is to say, what else could you guys need? We have an entire separate structure that’s constantly asking questions and measuring things.”
A Dialogue employee told Meduza that Weber is essentially Dialogue’s surveying branch spun off into a separate company. According to the employee, the firm is overseen by economist and former VTsIOM employee Yelena Udalova, who is also the head of the corresponding department at Dialogue.
Additionally, one of Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin said the heads of Dialogue have “plans or dreams to become the main player in the [Russian] political-strategy market,” and they hope Weber will help them with this:
There’s such a thing as vertically integrated enterprises, including in the PR and political-strategy sectors. Dialogue wants to handle elections, PR, and government relations for major companies. Now they’ll be able to go to a governor and say, look, not only do we have media and social media specialists — we also do polling.
They’ve even tried to offer their own “field specialists” [to handle operations on the ground] during elections. Apparently, they have their own teams, but our comrades at the top [from the presidential administration] quickly put a stop to it. There are other people for that.
According to a source close to the Putin administration, Dialogue’s pollsters are currently trying to distance themselves from Internet surveys and focus instead on higher-quality polling, focus groups, and public opinion interviews. Weber is also one of the agencies organizing “It Runs in the Family,” a family-themed competition and giveaway intended to “create a positive backdrop” ahead of the 2024 presidential election. “The competition is a brilliant way to show off the new project,” one source said, referring to the public opinion “statistics” frequently included in promotional materials for the initiative.
“It’s very comfortable sociology. Teachers, bargain sales, family — no hot-button issues. It’s a different level of optimism [compared to surveys about the war, sanctions, or political leaders],” said a source close to the Kremlin.
“Dialogue” did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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