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Russia: Networks of Paid Bloggers Exposed

Recently, Roman Dobrokhotov, a Russian blogger and political activist (who was interviewed by GV [EN] last year), has conducted an investigation [RUS] on how paid blogger networks function in the Russian blogosphere. He wrote that different representatives of the paid blogger network had contacted him three times, offering from $23 to $50 per post. Every blogger who agrees to provide content for a fee is supposed to choose a unique angle when writing about a certain topic. The latest offer that Dobrokhotov received was quite unusual: to write positive comments about the Russian police:

Менеджер компании Garin-studio предложил мне разместить целую серию постов с «позитивом» про милицию. За первый пост – 2000 р., за остальные – по тыще. Я выяснил под разными предлогами более подробную информацию. Заказчиком выступает не московское ГУВД, а федеральное МВД, причем, по словам моего собеседника, заказ шел из Управления собственной безопасности (так вот чем оно занимается!). Всего в проекте участвует более 50 блогеров, причем с некоторыми, самими популярными (например, с Радуловой) заказчик общается напрямую. Garin-studio, как я понял, далеко не единственный подрядчик МВД.

A manager of the company Garin-studio offered me to post a whole series of posts with some positive content about the police. For the first post – 2,000 rubles ($63), all others – 1,000 rubles each ($31). I've managed to unearth more detailed information. It turned out that the client of the company is the federal Ministry of the Interior, not the Moscow Police Department; what is even more interesting, the order was from the Department of Internal Security [which is supposed to control and monitor the police itself] (aha, so that's what they do!). There are 50 bloggers involved in this project, though with some of them, with the most popular (for example, with Radulova), the client is in direct contact. Garin-studio, as far as I understood, isn't the only contractor used by [the Ministry of the Interior].

Other bloggers spotted [RUS] some nearly simultaneous posts with positive comments about the police at Natalia Radulova's blog [RUS] and at another popular blog by Maxim Aleksandrov [RUS].

Dobrokhotov has counted at least 38 bloggers who allegedly have contracts with Garin-studio and are involved in the “police campaign,” some top-ranking bloggers among them. He has analysed how many popular bloggers wrote about the same things at the same time: some 75 bloggers have posted similar posts about mobile applications within one week (including such Top-25 bloggers as ibigdan, katoga, allan999, bydyry and sviridenkov); 17 bloggers or so have posted about weight loss medications.

Generally speaking, paid bloggers are a global phenomenon. In the United States in 2009, approximately 8.5 percent of all the bloggers were paid for what they wrote [EN]. As the line between blogging and journalism becomes blurred, the former stops being just a hobby and turns into a profession. David Armano explains the process of placing paid content in the mainstream and social media [EN]:

The business of buying media has been around as long as marketing and in the digital space, while it may be measured differently, the principles are similar. You determine where you'll get the most bang for your buck and purchase media placements in digital environments that are deemed appropriate. In many cases, agencies are used to broker the deals. The latest wrinkle to this model is to partner with specialized firms who deal in niche media such as communities, networks, forums and blogs. These firms will take payment and make arrangements for your communications to exist in these alternative areas. While as an advertiser you may not have control over the communications (for example, bloggers in this model still say what they want) but the “placement” remains paid for or purchased.

In Russia, too, there are vast networks of paid bloggers, who, until recently, hadn't been exposed. There are blog “markets” (like blogun.ru), where media-planners can order a post or a link concerning a certain topic or product. Usually it works like this: sometimes bloggers produce and are paid for content (e.g., tutorials, thematic materials on a certain subject), and sometimes they are paid to promote selected products (i.e., for subtle advertising). A lighter version of the “paid media” is “compensated media”: a blogger writes about some gadget he/she received as a gift or an event he/she got invited to. Many people would trust certain bloggers more than they would trust newspaper articles or TV commercials – the way they'd trust someone they know in person, a friend. This is part of what makes blogs such an attractive venue for those who are willing to promote a product or an event.

Money at Hand

Money at Hand, photocollage by Don Hankins

The idea of a paid blog is that it uses this private channel of communication and gets more efficient in promoting certain things or ideas. Of course, there's always a moral dilemma: if a blog is supposed to provide personal information and is intended to offer “real communication,” hidden advertisement “violates” the unspoken contract between the blogger and his/her readers, which is based on mutual respect and sincerity.

There are certain peculiarities about the Russian blogosphere. First of all, since the majority of most popular Russian blogs are hosted by LiveJournal, hidden advertisement is actually illegal. LJ's Terms of Service clearly restrict unsolicited or unauthorized advertisement (Article 7 of Member Conduct part says: “You agree to NOT use the Service to: … Upload, post or otherwise transmit any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, ‘junk mail,’ ‘spam,’ ‘chain letters,’ ‘pyramid schemes,’ or any other form of solicitation.”). This rule is widely ignored. Only one popular blogger, LJ user tema, tried to promote [RUS] authorised LiveJournal ads, but his initiatives never really found support among other popular bloggers.

What is even more important – and Dobrokhotov's case described above illustrates it vividly – is that the networks of paid bloggers sometimes turn to advocating certain political views or to promoting the official political agenda. The blogger's investigation brings more transparency to this “grey zone” of RuNet. Exposed paid bloggers are less influential, since readers understand that they advocate certain points of view because they're paid to do that. Another thing is that Dobrokhotov has uncovered one of the practices that the Ministry of the Interior conducts online to influence the Russian public opinion, thus raising an important issue: is it appropriate for a government institution to be using controversial marketing methods?

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