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Meet Clicker Pulse New leaked documents show how the Kremlin tracks Russians’ reactions to Putin’s speeches — and what it does with its findings

Source: Meduza

New documents leaked by a source close to the Putin administration shed light on a previously unknown tool in the Kremlin’s propaganda arsenal: an online program called Clicker Pulse. This software allows the Russian authorities and pro-government media to track which individual messages from the president’s speeches resonate with specific audiences and which ones fall flat. Using this information, the managers of Kremlin-aligned social media pages can then boost or suppress various sound bites from Putin’s addresses and press conferences to align with what regional audiences want to hear. Here’s how it works.

Propagandists from the pro-Kremlin “autonomous nonprofit organization” (ANO) Dialog gather information about the reactions of various segments of the Russian public to specific statements made by Vladimir Putin, according to leaked documents obtained by the Estonian news outlet Delfi and shared with Meduza.

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To record viewers’ “spontaneous emotional reactions” to particular moments in Putin’s speeches, according to the documents, Dialog has created an online tool called Clicker Pulse. The program works by asking focus group participants from Russia’s “main social groups” to click “Like” or “Dislike” every five seconds while watching videos of Putin’s speeches. It then aggregates the data, showing Dialog employees the majority reactions of various categories of viewers to each point in the speech.

This, the documents indicate, allows the Russian authorities’ vast network of social media curators to “adjust the audience for the delivery of [Putin’s] messages.” In other words, the Kremlin’s “regional governance centers” (RGCs) — agencies throughout the country that were created at Putin’s request in 2020 to get “feedback” from Russians online — can decide in real time which messages from Putin’s speeches to promote and which ones to suppress on regional pro-government social media pages and Telegram channels.

The focus group participants’ reactions are also sent immediately to senior members of the Putin administration, though it’s unclear from the leaked documents what the president’s team does with this information.

Additionally, Meduza has obtained a report that describes in detail the reactions of focus group participants to a press conference held by Putin in December 2021. Viewers’ “overall impression” of the event was “mixed,” according to the report’s authors; for example, most of them reacted negatively to Putin’s answer to a question about Russia’s restrictions on “foreign agents.” In his statement, the president claimed that the “beacon of democracy, the U.S.,” has a law similar to Russia’s repressive “foreign agents” law and that Moscow’s version is “much more liberal” than Washington’s. (This is not the case.)

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The focus group also had a negative reaction to Putin’s answer to a question about the use of torture in Russian prisons. Asked how the authorities planned to combat the practice and whether Putin would personally oversee these efforts, Putin said that torture in prisons is a “worldwide problem” and that “there are many places in Europe — say, in France — and in the U.S., the kinds of places that no longer exist even in third world countries.”

Meanwhile, viewers had positive reactions to Putin’s statements that “Ukraine was created by Lenin” and that the U.S. “came to our home with its missiles,” two claims that Putin would use to justify the full-scale war against Ukraine just months later.

Overall, respondents criticized the press conference for featuring “amorphous questions that received amorphous answers,” calling the event “pretty boring,” “predictable,” and “banal.”

A regional official who has heard the Russian authorities discuss their use of focus groups and Clicker Pulse told the authors of this story that the program was the “initiative” of Dialog ANO (whose head, Vladimir Tabak, did not respond to questions about Clicker Pulse). At the same time, the source said he’s confident that if focus group participants begin “criticizing the president too much,” these methods will quickly be discontinued.

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Reporting by Maria Zholobova (iStories), Svetlana Reiter (Meduza), and Andrey Pertsev (Meduza)

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