By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
Russia’s cyberspace looks pretty free compared to that of China, where access to Facebook, Twitter and independent websites is blocked by the government. The Kremlin has been involved in the creation of new media websites since 2000, but for many years the blogosphere and social networks were left to develop unnoticed. It was only towards the end of the 2000s that the Kremlin made its first incursions into the blogosphere, and the Arab Spring, when several Middle Eastern regimes were toppled, finally alerted the government and its security chiefs to the role of social networks in the organisation of protest actions.
The security services’ position
It looks as though the security services began to formulate a policy on blogging and social networks in the wake of the Arab Spring, but didn’t manage to come up with anything before the start of the December protests in Moscow. Accustomed as they were to countering traditional threats to the system, they were at a loss when confronted with both a movement with no organisational centre and reluctance among internet entrepreneurs to heed idiotic orders from above that threatened to disrupt their business.
In August 2011, at an informal summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Astana, Kazakhstan, which was attended by Dmitry Medvedev, the main topic of discussion was the revolutions in the Middle East and the role played by social networks. The summit apparently even adopted a special document recognising the potential danger of social media being involved in the organisation of protests in Russia
On 14th September 2011, at a meeting of the Coordination Council of CIS prosecutors general in Minsk, Russia’s prosecutor general Yury Chaika spoke of the need to establish control over online social networks, although he had in mind not the Arab Spring but the London riots of the previous month.
Nevertheless, neither the CSTO nor the prosecutor general’s office had any strategies in place either in December, when mass protests first broke out in Moscow, nor in the spring when the wave of protests resumed.
‘The absence of a clearly defined strategy on the part of the security services does not of course mean that they have excluded the possibility, at moments of crisis, of blocking access to internet sites that pose, in their opinion, a threat to the regime.’
The methods the security services intended to employ to deal with social networking were revealed at the height of the protests: on the eve of the protest rally on Bolotnaya Ploshchad on 10th December, the FSB sent a letter to the creator of the ‘VKontakte’ ↑ social network Pavel Durov, demanding he close the networking groups circulating details of rallies. Durov refused. The next day, he was summonsed to the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office to explain himself. Durov did not attend, the story came out and that was the end of the matter.
The absence of a clearly defined strategy on the part of the security services does not of course mean that they have excluded the possibility, at moments of crisis, of blocking access to internet sites that pose, in their opinion, a threat to the regime.
The Kremlin’s strategy
The presidential administration may have understood the opportunities offered by the blogosphere and the social networks earlier than the security services, but it dragged its feet over actively doing anything about it. We raised this matter with a number of experts, including Gleb Pavlovsky, the former head of the Foundation for Effective Politics (FEP), an organisation which has worked with the Kremlin; Marina Litvinovich, who until 2002 was in charge of FEP’s blogosphere, and is now editor-in-chief of the ‘BestToday’ blog aggregator site; and Anton Nossik, the media director of SUP Media, the company responsible for Russia’s most popular blog site, ‘Zhivoy Zhurnal’ (Live Journal). They all concurred that the Kremlin took no notice of the blogosphere before 2007.
According to Anton Nossik, who worked on Kremlin Internet projects as early as 1999, the government initially thought that the Internet would be used only by lawyers with websites and the media, and ‘the blogosphere was not taken into account’. The Kremlin hoped that by putting pressure on editors it could use internet media sites to counter any ‘incorrect’ news coverage. This strategy had worked well with the traditional media. The Kremlin also provided funding for the creation of internet media sites such as Strana.ru and Vesti.ru, whose function was to influence public opinion through the web.
‘The pro-Kremlin media sites were created by IT geeks with no experience of working in the press, whereas the independent online publishers attracted professional journalists who had lost their jobs in the traditional media because of pressure from the Kremlin.‘
It soon became clear that this idea wasn’t working, and that government financed sites were losing out in popularity and influence to independent media sites and news aggregator sites like gazeta.ru and newsru.com. One reason for this was that the pro-Kremlin media sites were created by IT geeks with no experience of working in the press, whereas the independent online publishers attracted professional journalists who had lost their jobs in the traditional media because of pressure from the Kremlin.
In the late 2000s the presidential administration turned its full attention to ‘Live Journal’ and the social networks. Both the opposition and those who worked for the Kremlin agree that the man in charge of the government’s policies in this area was Vladislav Surkov, the then First Deputy Director of the presidential administration. To win the online battle for public opinion, the Kremlin decided to resort to simple and crude methods.
This boiled down to an aggressive invasion of discussion forums used by liberal commentators, where vulgar and indecent language and personal insults were used with the aim of scaring off contributors and even shutting down the forums completely. The idea was that self-respecting people would stop accessing forums where discussions were conducted in such a way.
To carry out this strategy they roped in all the forces at their disposition: employees of Rosmolodyozh, the Federal Youth Agency; activists from the ‘Nashi’ movement and other pro-Kremlin youth organisations that had been created to counter the spread of opposition ideas; tame political consultants and Internet subcontractors.
‘It is still unclear whether the Kremlin first decided on this strategy, and then looked for appropriate people to carry it out, or whether they first looked at the human resources at the disposition of pro-Kremlin organisations (mainly badly educated young people from the provinces) and then built the strategy around them.’
It is still unclear whether the Kremlin first decided on this strategy, and then looked for appropriate people to carry it out, or whether they first looked at the human resources at the disposition of pro-Kremlin organisations (mainly badly educated young people from the provinces) and then built the strategy around them. In any case, techniques like these are not an exclusively Russian invention. As Ethan Zuckerman, the Director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, has written, ‘the approach involves trying to influence the online space, amplifying some voices and silencing others. Russia appears to be quite active in this space, both by encouraging groups like Nashi to be very vocal online and by supporting or condoning the silencing of other voices via denial of service attacks. I would not suggest that this is unique to Russia – in China, the 50 Cent Party, a group of bloggers who receive compensation to post pro-government speech, are engaged in similar practices. And Syria and Bahrain appear to be engaged in similar activity on Twitter, engaging international commentators in angry confrontations over their opinions. But the techniques of online harassment and contestation are very well developed in Russia.’
The question of abuse being directed at Russian opposition figures on ‘Live Journal’ came to public attention in 2007, when Timofey Shevyakov called MP Victor Alksnis, an army officer and sharp critic of the government, by an obscene word during an online debate. Alksnis complained to the public prosecutor’s office and the story went public, but Shevyakov nevertheless refused to apologise to the MP. Given that Shevyakov was then working at the Foundation for Effective Politics (this was confirmed to us by FEP head Gleb Pavlovsky) and was also involved in other pro-government Internet projects, many felt that he was being protected by the Kremlin. And indeed, the abused MP’s complaint never reached the courts.
Timofey Shevyakov, in real life a shy young man, told our correspondent that he considers the use of abusive language against liberals and opposition activists in blogs perfectly acceptable. The incident with Alksnis, he said, had had no negative effect on his career: ‘Think about it, where is Alksnis and where am I?’ Nor did it stop him working as a political consultant at the last elections. Alsknis, on the other hand, lost his parliamentary seat.
Since then bloggers have been increasingly aware of organised attacks by Internet trolls on posts criticising the government, and the use in these attacks of personal abuse, in normally unprintable language, directed at blog writers, leading to bewilderment and frightening away normal ‘friends’. Over the last year users of the Facebook and ‘VKontakte’ social networks, which together have about 30 million Russian-language accounts, have also increasingly been encountering this phenomenon.
The ‘Live Journals’ of many opposition bloggers, including those of anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny, journalist Andrey Malgin and political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky have also been targeted by Internet trolls. The accounts of many opposition and liberally inclined figures have been subjected to ‘phishing’ attacks by hackers as well.
The victims of these attacks believe they are perpetrated by ‘Nashi’ activists egged on by the Kremlin, but it has been difficult to pinpoint those responsible, since they work anonymously through a network of false accounts, using bot programmes to automatically infect websites with spam and abusive language.
In February 2012, however, ‘Anonymous’ hackers fleshed out the picture of the Kremlin’s secret activity in the blogosphere by breaking into the email accounts of ‘Nashi’s’ press officer Kristina Potupchik and her boss, the head of the Federal Youth Agency Vasily Yakemenko, and posting their correspondence on the Internet. The picture was completed with the help of details that emerged from the emails of rank and file ‘Nashi’ members. The correspondence included a discussion of money paid to pro-Kremlin bloggers and the costs of posts on ‘Live Journal’, as well as more serious questions such as the organisation of DDoS attacks that paralysed the Kommersant newspaper’s site. A remark by the pro-Kremlin activist Zaur Gazdarov, ‘Why have I been writing a ‘Live Journal’ blog if I won’t get a penny for it?’, went viral. In an email to Potupchik the young activist complained that he hadn’t received any payment for blogs he had written and admitted that his main motivation was financial.
‘In an email the young activist complained that he hadn’t received any payment for blogs he had written and admitted that his main motivation was financial.’
Of course it would be very interesting to discover what ‘Nashi’s’ leaders think about all this. Kristina Potupchik asked us to email her our questions, explaining that she was going to be out of Moscow for three weeks, but we have still had no answers from her.
Less than a month later, new information about the activities of Yakemenko’s agency appeared on the Internet. This time the correspondence hacked into was between two Rosmolodyozh officials, the head of its youth policy programme section Artyom Lazarev and the head of its youth policy department Roman Pyrma. An email signed ‘Aleksandr’, addressed to Pyrma, contains an extensive report on the Federal Youth Agency’s activists’ doings in the blogosphere and social networks. Two social networking accounts are registered to this young man’s email address ([email protected]): ‘yarosh’ on ‘Live Journal’ and Alexsander Yarosh on Twitter. His posts on both of these consist mainly of positive comments about Vladimir Putin and criticism of the opposition. His user information gives his date of birth as 1984 and place of birth as Kursk. The information on his home page in ‘VKontakte’ coincides with that on ‘Live Journal’, and also shows a photo of a young man working on a MacBook who is presumably the writer of the email.
‘Judging from the email, Rosmolodyozh ‘has a network of 100 live Twitter accounts’, and is setting up a network of people to post positive tweets about Putin and negative ones about Navalny.’
From his email to Pyrma it is clear that alongside their propaganda exercises – positive blogs about Putin and negative ones about the opposition, and driving up the number of votes in online polls on sites and social networks – ‘Nashi‘ activists are also actively engaged in activities such as sending bloggers 2000 spam comments. On Twitter they use software that allows them to post pro-Kremlin tweets on page-tops. Judging from the email, Rosmolodyozh ‘has a network of 100 live Twitter accounts’, and is setting up a network of people to post positive tweets about Putin and negative ones about Navalny (200 people so far). The idea is that a special robot will send them information and prepare headlines for pro-Putin top-users. All this probably comes under the heading of propaganda.
There has also been activity on Facebook: it seems that communications between members of the ‘We were on Bolotnaya’ group have had to be curtailed by site administrators because of the number of comments left by cyber activists which required constant deletion.
Rosmolodyozh, which as we have seen has at its disposition a small army of cyber activists to work in the blogosphere and social networks, is not the Kremlin’s only weapon in its war against the bloggers. In fact the majority of experts we approached doubted whether the Federal Youth Agency is capable of coming up with a single idea related to cyberspace, and its role is probably a purely practical one.
In August 2007 Konstantin Rykov, who has spent more than a decade working as a subcontractor on pro-Kremlin Internet projects, including the information websites Vzglyad.ru, Dni.ru and Russia.ru, expressed a professional interest in the blogosphere. He organised a bus tour to Nizhny Novgorod for bloggers, in the course of which he mixed with ‘kindred spirits’, including writers Sergey Minaev and Eduard Bagirov.
‘The day before the Bolotnaya Ploshchad protest rally [Rykov] tweeted: ‘I’ve counted my cartridges. I have three clips. I’ll take 30 or so liberals with me. I want to dYe for Russia tomorrow.’’
Although Rykov has worked for the regime for a long time, and has even served as a ‘United Russia’ MP, he started in the 1990s as the creator of the counter-culture sites Fuck.ru and Udaff.com, whose contributors wrote articles on various topics full of expletives and deliberate spelling mistakes.
Rykov has retained this web style to this day: last December his obscene tweet about people who call United Russia ‘the party of swindlers and thieves’ reappeared on President Medvedev’s twitter page, although it was soon taken down. The day before the Bolotnaya Ploshchad protest rally he tweeted: ‘I’ve counted my cartridges. I have three clips. I’ll take 30 or so liberals with me. I want to dYe for Russia tomorrow.’
In January Anton Nossik’s ‘Live Journal’ blog accused Rykov of organising an attack on the site. Rykov denied it and threatened to take him to court. Nossik has since retracted the accusation but still believes that Rykov is being used by the Kremlin in its war on the blogosphere. In an interview with us he described the situation as follows: ‘Everyone has their own farm. There is Rykov’s farm and there is Potupchik’s farm, but the crops they produce – insults, bots, spam, jamming and suppression – are the same.’
Nossik believes that Rykov plays in the same online band as ‘Nashi’, under Surkov’s baton. But if Potupchik and Yakemenko only appeared on the Internet in about 2010, Rykov has been there since the middle of the 90s, and, to judge from his own words, was using aggressive tactics in online debates even then. ‘I went online in 1995’, Rykov said in an interview published on the ‘Web-Planet’ site in 2008. ‘I would go onto the #russkie site, an online chat room used by Russians who had emigrated to places like the USA, Israel, Germany and so on. My friends and I would sit in Moscow and try to undermine their morale, engage in ideological warfare with them, prevent them enjoying their delusive émigré happiness and make them look like complete idiots in their own eyes.’
We approached Konstantin Rykov for an interview several times, but he refused to meet our reporter and discuss this issue.
Who is winning the battle?
It is clear that in the last few years the Kremlin has put some considerable effort into an online battle for public opinion with the opposition. The question is, how effective has it been?
In the ‘Live Journal’ ratings for 12th March there was not a single pro-Kremlin blogger in the top twenty. Those at the top of the charts did, however, include Aleksey Navalny; writer Boris Akunin, who has become one of the protest leaders; liberal industrial and graphic designer Artemy Lebedev; Anton Nossik and well known journalist and TV presenter Leonid Parfenov. The ‘Live Journal’ blog of ‘Nashi’s’ press secretary Kristina Potupchik, on the other hand, came in at No 633 in the ratings, with 852 hits, as opposed to Navalny’s 13,500.
‘We want to present the full spectrum of opinion, so we sometimes publish posts by Potupchik because she is a conspicuous representative of the other side. We also sometimes reprint texts by Vasily Yakemenko’s brother Boris, but there’s nobody else on that side worth including.’
Marina Litvinovich’s ‘BestToday’ site monitors Russian blogs daily, and publishes a digest of the best. ‘We want to present the full spectrum of opinion’, she says, ‘so we sometimes publish posts by Potupchik because she is a conspicuous representative of the other side. We also sometimes reprint texts by Vasily Yakemenko’s brother Boris, but there’s nobody else on that side worth including. The opposition has a lot more intelligent people batting for it.’ Litvinovich feels that ‘Nashi’ is effective in its use of the web to publicise its own projects, but that it has been unable to create ‘blogwaves’ (blogs that go viral) or to kill other people’s. She believes that the Russian blogosphere is such a free and uncontrollable space that neither the Kremlin nor the opposition can really have any effect on it. Litvinovich worked with Surkov in the early 2000s and feels that the calibre of the people around him has fallen steeply since then.
Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told us in a telephone interview that trolling and the dissemination of political spam on the Internet is considered a criminal activity, and stressed while that people who engage in it today hope to escape reprisals by hiding behind their connection with officials, they may fall foul of international laws if they tamper with Twitter or Facebook. The former Kremlin spin doctor feels that ‘it makes no sense politically, as it just strangles political debate’. To our question of whether it is an effective strategy, he answered: ‘It is effective when it is under the protection of a dominant power structure, but when that disappears all these little people start yelping.’
In other words, the methods employed by the Kremlin against the social networks would be effective in a government controlled cyberspace such as that of China, but they just don’t work in a competitive environment.
P.S. With the departure of the Kremlin’s chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov from the presidential administration and the promotion of Vyacheslav Volodin to the post of First Deputy Director in December 2011, the alignment of forces will undoubtedly change. This may, in turn, mean that the role currently played by ‘Nashi’ members may fall to United Russia’s ‘Young Guards’ or someone else. Most probably, however, their methods will remain the same.
This article was also published at OpenDemocracy