22.11.23 Propaganda Review

Trolls, Elves and Other Public Sector Workers: The Russian authorities are developing a post-Prigozhin system of astroturfing, while the opposition is trying to oppose them with the same methods

The Russian authorities have built a large-scale network to simulate popular support for the war and Putin's political trajectory, using the traditional tool that is the mobilisation of public sector workers. A study published by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europa has revealed that about half of the VKontakte posts using pro-war hashtags are copy-pasted, and their authors are employees of educational, pre-school and municipal institutions. This network is another element of the wholescale system of information falsification in social networks, the most prominent part of which was until recently Prigozhin's 'troll factories' and 'bot farms'. While, in the early 2010s, social media became an important tool of resistance against autocracies, in recent years, autocracies have seized the initiative in using them for censorship, propaganda and astroturfing. Moreover, they have managed to force democracies into a 'race to the bottom' when it comes to network freedom and the distortion of the online environment. The scandal around the opposition’s 'elf factory', which has used the same methods to promote its agenda, is yet another confirmation of this.

A study published by Novaya Gazeta Evropa has revealed a full-fledged network of pro-government astroturfing (the imitation of public opinion) on Russia's most popular social network, VKontakte. Having analysed 1.3 million posts using pro-war hashtags, the researchers found that almost half of these — more than 600,000 — were ‘copy-pasted' (in one case, the post even contained a technical task: 'Place text and an illustration on your pages in social networks. Report back with a link to your posted posts'). Among the selected posts, it is easy to identify collections of 5 to 100 identical posts written in the same region. An analysis of the profiles of their authors indicates that real people, not bots or 'troll factories', are involved in this process. Alesya Sokolova and Katya Orlova, the authors of the study, found that most of the owners of accounts from which the identical posts originated are public sector workers (more than 2,000), employees of schools (more than 2,000), municipal administrations (about 2,000), kindergartens and district libraries (1,000), or deputies at the municipal level (1,000).

An important coordinating role in this network is played by the organisation ‘Dialogue’ (and its subsidiaries), one of the primary quasi-governmental structures responsible for manipulating online audiences in the interests of the Kremlin. It is Dialogue's structures that oversee the writing of loyalist posts and comments on the official social media pages of governors, city administrations, regional ministries, schools and kindergartens, and are also responsible for recruiting authors for posts.

Thus, Novaya Gazeta Europe’s report reflects another side of the end of ‘Prigozhin’s legacy'. An investigation by Dossier earlier this year showed that the main tool for the purposeful distortion of 'public sentiment' on social networks were 'troll factories' and 'bot farms' linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin's media empire. Their content praised the Russian authorities and was aggressively critical of Ukraine, the US, Europe, the Russian opposition, and Yevgeny Prigozhin's personal enemies (St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and others). The IT and SMM specialists of Prigozhin's empire mobilised armies of bots when it was necessary to sow chaos among public discussion on social networks or 'extinguish' opposition content.

The model that emerges from this is of a bureaucratic-family nature. Vladimir Kiriyenko, the son of the Deputy Head of the presidential administration, Sergey Kiriyenko, runs VKontakte, which, as is evident in the 'technical assignment' discovered by Novaya Gazeta, acts as a 'buyer' of this content, while regional administrations probably act as coordinators providing the system with agents at the local level.

In an earlier joint investigation by Meduza, Important Stories and The Bell, it was revealed that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities have been systematically spreading disinformation about the Ukrainian leadership, the war and how it is treated in Europe through ‘Dialogue’. These were not one-size-fits-all posts by public sector workers or virtual attacks on opponents by 'trolls' or bots, but a kind of information falsification, i.e. elaborate infiltrations into those information environments where it is necessary to sow chaos and distrust. In contrast to these activities, the network of state employees has the simpler task of imitating mass 'popular' opinion. To some extent, the Russian authorities are following in the footsteps of the military junta in Myanmar, which has involved soldiers in similar activities.

Against this background, an alternative 'elf factory' organised by the Free Russia Foundation established to counteract pro-government astroturfing using similar methods is unlikely to have a significant effect due to the disparity in resources and the scale of activities. The image damage caused by the revelation of its existence is likely to outweigh the benefits of disinformation, even though, according to the most detailed investigation of the 'factory's' activities published by Mediazona, no evidence has yet been found that the 'elves' were used in the internal squabbles of the opposition. The development of technologies for the automatic recognition and labelling of artificial content looks more promising. Perhaps they could either reduce the weight of such content or increase the price of its distribution.

In the first half of the 2010s, social media played an important role in organising resistance to authoritarian regimes. In recent years, however, authoritarian governments have seized the initiative in using them for censorship, promotion of propaganda and disinformation, and astroturfing. Moreover, as a recent Freedom House report notes, they have managed to impose on democracies a 'race to the bottom' when it comes to online freedom and the distortion of the online environment. The scandal around the opposition’s 'elf factory' is yet another confirmation of this.