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Russia: Millions of Taxpayer Rubles Earmarked for Facebook “Likes”

Earlier this week, blogger and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny took aim at a pending state tender [ru] for advertising services to aid the state-owned broadcasting company The Voice of Russia (VoR). Next month, an auction will be held through Sberbank [ru] to find a firm capable of meeting VoR's publicity targets. The maximum price tag has been capped at 7 million rubles (220 thousand USD).

On his blog, Navalny highlights [ru] the seemingly large amount of government money needed for this campaign, and mocks the fact that VoR's metric for success is accruing more “likes” on Facebook for its various language divisions. (Navalny singles out Portuguese as a particularly worthless branch, though German is actually VoR's lowest priority in pure “like” numbers.)

Characteristic of his muckraking work, Navalny also lashed out personally at the malefactor's chief, in this case Director Andrei Bystritskii, facetiously pleading with him to “remember his conscience” and “take caution” before wasting government funds on social popularity that ‘should occur organically.’ In a flash of populism, Navalny even attacked Bystritskii for diverting funds that might otherwise have been dedicated to struggling provincial hospitals.

Facebook changes user emails to unique Facebook email account, 25 June 2012, by Alex Milan Tracy, copyright © Demotix.

Within hours, Bystritskii went on Echo of Moscow radio station and responded [ru] to the accusations, explaining that working with social networks is essential today to any modern media company. After correcting Russia's preeminent blogger on the issue of VoR's independence from VGTRK (another broadcasting company, which Navalny mistakenly credited with owning VoR), Bystritskii finished his Echo appearance by patronizing Navalny, calling him a “rosy-cheeked little critic” prone to exaggeration.

The next day, Navalny responded [ru] in kind, calling Bystritskii “a kook” and questioning his position [ru] at the Higher School of Economics (where Bystritskii is a professor). Navalny also promised to file still more substantive claims against VoR's approaching tender. (So far, his only formal complaint [ru] about the auction has been to protest a paperwork discrepancy in the official documents.)

In response to the scandal over Facebook “likes,” some of Navalny's critics have rehashed [ru] a story [ru] from February earlier this year, when several large groups on the Russian social network Vkontakte were simultaneously hijacked and transformed into pro-Navalny collectives. The accusation is that Navalny (or his supporters, unless one considers the incident to have been a setup) is practiced at manipulating online media to boost his own celebrity, not unlike Bystritskii and the Voice of Russia.

In this environment of suspicion and conspiracy, all online fame is reduced to marketing techniques — mostly deceptive tactics that obscure the ‘ultimate Internet truth’ that people are really only logged on to seek out entertainment.

Bots and trust

On Twitter and LJ, Navalny has approvingly cited analysts who also object to VoR's Facebook strategy, though some among them think it is too expensive, while others think the auction spends too little. Blogger Egor Kotkin, for instance, argues [ru] that 7 million rubles is unnecessary to buy just 1 million advertisement “clicks” and 24 thousand new VoR “fans” on Facebook. He argues that the job could be done for just a seventh of the cost (though he seems to believe that any ad firm inevitably will defraud the government and use “bots” to inflate returns dishonestly).

Facebook, incidentally, is still reeling from “bot” accusations by an American start-up out of Long Island, which recently pulled all advertisements from the website, after discovering that the vast majority of its Facebook ad clicks resulted from artificial accounts, rather than genuine human users.

Meanwhile, Denis Terekhov of Social Networks Agency told Vedomosti newspaper that the 7 million ruble payout is actually too low to offer any ad firm much of a profit. Incidentally, Terekhov estimates the number of new Facebook fans specified in the state tender to be about 17 thousand people (5 thousand less than Kotkin's figure, for whatever reason). Vedomosti reports [ru]:

Правда, найти агентство, которое будет готово взяться за такую работу, будет непросто, считает он: прибыль будет невысокой, а еще нужно держать отдельного менеджера, который будет вести кампании на разных языках.

To be honest, it won't be easy to find an agency that will be ready to sign up for such work, [Terekhov] believes: the profits will be low, and one still needs to hire a separate manager to lead campaigns in all the different languages.

The dispute surrounding the Voice of Russia and its Facebook marketing strategy reveals much about how Russians understand online popularity. Perhaps the RuNet's single greatest star and one of the individuals who has benefitted most from social network mobilization in Russia, Navalny is quick to denigrate the need for outreach on Facebook. The basis for that confidence is the concept that Navalny's online support is ‘organic,’ whereas an advertising campaign for a state-owned media company is ‘unnatural.’ That, of course, is why Navalny's critics are eager to prove that not all his support is genuine.

Paranoia about “bots” and incongruous perceptions about how much marketing actually costs also demonstrates Russian netizens’ extremely low faith in the honesty of their network. The Voice of Russia, Navalny's logic goes, should not invest in Facebook advertising because Facebook should be a raw measure of what Internet users “like” without outside manipulation. Marketing and manipulation are eternal, however, and the popularity of online players — be they million-dollar media companies or scrappy oppositionist bloggers — will forever be in doubt.

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