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Russia: Human Bots Fight Opposition

A famous cartoon by Peter Steiner depicts a dog sitting at the computer and saying that “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.” In Russia, this principle is often used to spin political agenda and replicate public opinion.

Creating the “bots” to do this, and the opening hundreds of fake blog accounts has even became a full-time job for people, who do not hesitate to use the blank spaces of online persona to their advantage.

Graffiti robot. Image by Flickr user jlmaral (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Graffiti robot. Image by Flickr user jlmaral (CC BY-SA 2.0).

High-profile oppositional blogger navalny (read GV's interview with him here) recently noted [ru] that some comments in his LiveJournal, the most popular blogging platform in Russia, were created by users registered on the same day. The comments usually range from simple offenses (“the author of this post is an idiot”) to argument-like entries (“this navalny doesn't have any information and is too lazy to check facts”).

The issue of someone with numerous fake identities leaving a comment or two does not pose any problem per se. But it does become more than an annoyance when there is a whole army of “bots”  fighting a war with emerging opposition bloggers in the country. The numerous – however silly and out-of-place – comments distract the attention of readers from the discussion of important issues and spam blogs with pages of unrelated comments.

Other bloggers  (dolboeb, man_with_dogs, and aiden-ko, to name just few) got to the core of the issue and came up with a research-like posts [ru] on their LiveJournals. They talked about a peculiar posting on Free-lance.ru, a Russian website with job adverts for people working in the information technology field. The posting has been deleted but man_with_dogs has a saved screenshot [ru] of the original:

“I need 5 people,” the ad says. “Each of them will leave 70 comments a day from 50 different accounts (the accounts need to be live). Urgently. The job is 5 days a week. The duration of this project is 3 months. The payment is every 10 days (Webmoney, Yandex Money [methods of payment - GV]). Total: 12,000 rubles [around $400-G.V.] a month.”

The author of this ad, someone named Vladimir Alekseev (probably a fake name since it sounds too conventional) also provided the details of the “job.” The human bots need to target the blog of navalny:

The task is to create the maximum believable wave of comments to degrade the rating of the journal's author and to form a negative attitude toward him. You need to comment each new post correctly and persuasively. It is also important to create a positive image of “United Russia” party [the ruling party in Russia]. Can you do it?

Interestingly enough, navalny has a long history of accusing United Russia of all kinds of misbehavior. He famously called it “the party of crooks and thieves” and tried to document financial speculations and cases of embezzlement allegedly conducted by the party's members. So it should not surprise anyone that, if the job advert is real, that United Russia has attempted to discredit navalny online.

Of course, those notes and links are far from hard facts. In theory, everyone could fabricate and replicate this issue online and the advert could well be the product of someone who would like to present navalny as a real fighter of corruption (and there is no real fighter without an opponent). But navalny‘s “correct and persuasive” spam problem is an illustration that human bots have become a relatively new trend on the Russian Internet (previously, comment bots were mostly programmed).

More often than not, this turns out to be an effective way to spin or create a “hot” topic. The recent sad, disappointing and embarrassing online “campaign” against Japan is just one example of how an issue can be created out of nothing. Right after the tsunami and earthquake-hit nuclear power plant in Fukushima became internationally known, several bloggers posted a scanned copy of an old  Japanese newspaper [ru] that allegedly talked about the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

According to those bloggers, the newspaper called the Soviets “savages that cannot be let near nuclear energy” and bragged that “the Chernobyl scenario is impossible in Japan.” Hundreds of bloggers commented on this. Many believed the scanned copy was real. It seemed that the issue had been actively promoted online and the topic became one of the top themes of the Russian Internet.

It took only someone who knows Japanese language to translate the real headlines of the newspaper: “New Russian Constitution Adopted at the Congress of the Members of Russian Parliament,” “Uniting with the Project of President,” “Interview with the Chairman of High Committee of Russia Sokolov.” And, of course, no mention of Chernobyl or anything related to it.

Blogger drugoi posted the real translation [ru] of the headlines and soon enough encountered the infamous human bots through comments.

This illustrated the sophistication with which certain forces approach the issue of controlling the web. Human bots in Russia are more effective than good old automatic spam bots. They have a soul and a brain. They logically react to blog posts and they strength in their number.

Evgeny Morozov's idea of  “spinternet” can be well applied here with the whole practice of promoting certain points of view online  becoming more and more prevalent in Russia. Nobody knows if you are a dog on the Internet but it certainly seems that dogs behave more ethically than some online forces that try to deceive people and discredit the Web as a tool for building a better society.

This post was re-published in Russian by the Ezhednevniy Zhurnal (Daily Journal) as part of a content partnership with Global Voices’ RuNet Echo.
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  • XiaoMali

    This kind of practice has been successfully used by the Chinese government since several years. A good example are the comments in the Banyan section of the economist online edition. The Chinese “bots” however are easily recognizable because the wording they use is rather standart.

    • Vadim Isakov

      definitely, this practice is used in many other countries. I guess as the bots get more “sophisticated,” it will be harder to recognize them .

    • Вера

      The described above technology has actively been practiced in Russia AGAINST Putin polycy, especially after joining Crimea to Russia. These bots, however, can easylly be revealed. Besides they are all saying the same things with the same words, it’s probably not an easy job to post messages from 50 different accounts simultaneously, they often get confused, writing from an account with a male name something like “I’m a native Crimean, an officer’s daughter, and I may tell you things don’t go so right here in Crimea. No one wants to separate from Ukrain”. This quotation is a real one, it has even become a mem in Russian internet. Since then, such bots are often called “officer’s daughters”.http://s7.pikabu.ru/images/big_size_comm/2014-05_6/14011368742495.png

  • http://www.scribblegal.com Myra

    What’s happening in Russia also occurs in the US. Ever heard of the Koch brothers? They hire and train people for exactly that purpose.

    • jamesmace

      So it’s a legit offer?
      Do they pay right away?

    • Hector Ruiz III

      Oh, the Koch Brothers, they’re a real life version of Tom Steyer. You know Michigan Democratic senatorial candidate Gary Peters attended a fundraiser held by anti-Keystone billionaire Tom Steyer despite his proclaimed opposition to the influence of out-of-state billionaires on Michigan politics.

      Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire, has pledged to spend $100 million in 2014 to elect environmentalist Democrats in February. Peters accompanied Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) to Steyer’s San Francisco mansion less than a week after the announcement. The pair dined on salmon and grass-fed beef from Steyer’s personal ranch and before walking away with $400,000 for Reid’s Senate Super PAC.

      Peters has collected $170,000 from leadership PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

      Peters’ pilgrimage to San Francisco contrasts his commitment to getting so-called dark money out of politics, as well as his public statements criticizing the libertarian Koch brothers. His campaign site’s blog attempted to connect Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land to the liberal boogeymen.

      “The Koch Brothers: out of state oil billionaires trying to buy the election for Terri Lynn Land,” the post said. “They share an agenda. … If Terri Lynn Land and the Koch Brothers win—Michigan loses.”

      Peters’ environmentalist position mirrors Steyer’s agenda. The environmentalist billionaire’s top priority is blocking the Keystone Pipeline, which would create tens of thousands of jobs. The Obama administration delayed the project again in April, just weeks after President Barack Obama attended a $5,000-per-plate fundraiser at Steyer’s.

  • http://bloggingcommon.org/ Blogging Common Team

    Dear Blogger,

    Please help us! We recently invited you to participate in an online survey run by the Berkman Center at Harvard University about your experiences and opinions as an active blogger. To the best of our knowledge, we have not received your response to the survey. You can participate in the survey by following this link:

    http://new.qualtrics.com/SE?Q_SS=8nV0CBchs8SBvDK_4Hp4lVv4k0EMdeI

    Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have. You can reach us at info@bloggingcommon.org or view our FAQ at http://bloggingcommon.org/research.

    Thank you in advance for your time.

    Sincerely,
    The Blogging Common Team
    Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/marxisminternational LouisGodena

    Reminds me of the “former” practices of such stalwarts of freedom like the FBI, who, it was revealed, actively “planted” stories in a compliant press to discredit people whose opinions the government did not like. Media barons like Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and “politically committed” billionaires like George Soros do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, I don’t think I’d be too far wrong that, on certain foreign and domestic issues, “public opinion” is really little more than the result of “perception management” carried out by elites in finance and the media.

    • jamesmace

      Interesting but tell us more about the Russian nazi alliance when they started WWII by invading poland

      • Hector Ruiz III

        Ooh, yes, please! I really want to hear the part where the Russians ate and lounged across the Vistula, while the Nazi’s bombed Warsaw and the Poles into rubble. Gotta love that Hitler-Stalin pact!

        • Herb Suhl

          I grew up with three guys named Hector Ruiz. Two of them do body and fender work. The third guy really hit it big. He mows lawns for the parks department and will collect a fat check from the city until the day he dies. When he dies his El Salvadorian wife will carry on with the city check. None of them however have any could tell in which country Warsaw is located. It is not that they are stupid, they just do not care. Well actually the guy who works for the City is pretty stupid. Anyway, how do I know you are Hector Ruiz and not Chatsworth Uppingham from the horse country in CT or Bradley Shapiro from Encino, California? Our humor tends to revolve around out wives getting mad at us about things we have absolutely no control over and being forced to grin and bear it. The Vistula is totally off our radar.

          • Hector Ruiz III

            Herb, I guess you didn’t get the memo that Latinos can go to college and even major in History. I’ll say “ola” to the other Hectors at the next Latinos Named Hector Club meeting. How do I know you’re not Biff Boffington from Boca or Günter the Skinhead? I don’t and I don’t care.

        • Вера

          I beg you pardon for interfering — where do you think this event took place?

          • Hector Ruiz III

            Bepa – pull your head out of the borscht. Germany invaded Poland. Russia sat by and watched the Poles get crushed. Russia could care less about Poland, until Uncle Joe Stalin got a wake up call from the Wermacht. Then the Hitler-Stalin pact went oopsies. Then in the 1980′s Russia invaded peaceful neighbor Poland. See a pattern here? Do me a favor…walk around Red Square with a sign saying “Putin likes naked boys” and let me know how that turns out.

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