How the Moscow Mayoral Candidates are Winning the Internet

August 30, 2013
Navalny poses for photograph on MDK.

Elections for mayor of Moscow will take place on 8 September. The current campaign is the first one where in the struggle for votes, the candidates have turned to promoting their personas on the Internet along with the traditional methods (advertising in the media and offline campaigning). Lenta.ru has studied the official and unofficial sites of Sergei Sobyanin, the relations of Alexei Navalny with the popular “publics” of VKontakte and the timid steps of the other contenders for the post of city boss.

They’re Showing Navalny Here, There, Everywhere

It is most logical to start our round-up of the mayoral candidates’ Internet activity with Alexei Navalny, a man who has made his name with publications of his anti-corruption investigations on Live Journal. The idea that Navalny has come “from the Internet” is so strong in the public mind that many media outlets keep call him simply “a blogger,” even when it’s a question of news directly related to the election campaign. The candidate himself actively “goes offline” every day to meet dozens and hundreds of residents of Moscow districts, prints and distributes newspapers through volunteers, and places campaign cubes around the capital which have become a meme themselves.

But Navalny doesn’t forget the Internet. On the candidate’s official site, those who wish may not only familiarize themselves with his campaign program and donate money to him, but can take part in the campaign. All the newspapers cited are collected on one page (they can be distributed) and the campaign cubes (you have to stand on them) as well as virtual buttons such as “white Navalny on red circle” (they can be placed over your avatar). Volunteers can spam a bit on social networks; through a special service, anyone who wishes may send up to 20 messages a day to random users of VKontakte who have indicated Moscow as their place of residence in their profile.


– They write me, too.

Navalny wanted to apply another approach to another popular social network, Odnoklassniki [Classmates], and place his campaign advertising on that site. But the administration of Odnoklassniki refused to cooperate with Navalny. As Navalny explains, at first Odnoklassniki managers themselves came to him with an offer and a preliminary agreement was even reached. But then the social network suddenly backed off. Odnoklassniki managers tell it differently; according to them, it was Navalny’s campaign staff who came to them to ask about advertising, but Odnoklassniki in the end decided not to cooperate with any of the politicians. They explained this as due to the fact that political ad campaigns are not economically profitable, since they last a short time and require greater attention on the part of the platform. On the other hand, Navalny didn’t have any problems with Google’s AdSense. If you type in the name “Navalny” in the search box on google.com, you are very likely to hit a Navalny ad with an offer to read the candidate’s program on his site and “vote for the future.” A similar ad pops up on YouTube, a Google property. But the AdSense network distributes ads not only on Google’s properties, which means that Russian users (or Muscovites, depending on the targeting) encounter Navalny in rather unexpected places; for example, on Business Insider, an economic publication; on the scientific site phys.org or on a humor site, 9gag.com.

– I opened a site about pharmacies, and there’s Navalny. I’m not going to turn on the iron.

Navalny also has an unofficial channel to disseminate information about himself – popular communities on VKontakte (in local slang, they are called “publics”). For example, Navalny’s banner appeared in a humor public called iFeed which has 2.5 million subscribers (a copy is here – usually advertising posts are removed from the communities within a certain amount of time, therefore links to permanent copies of the pages mentioned here are included in parentheses). A community devoted to half-naked tattooed girls also advertises Navalny (copy). As a source familiar with the situation told Lenta.ru, in this case the post was definitely placed for money. He also sent to the editors an archive collected by fans which enabled us to get a sense of the approximate size of the audience for such an advertising campaign – it is calculated in millions, if not tens of millions of users (here it should be taken into account that the audiences of many publics largely overlap.)

“Just like you, I have something to lose, and I know what I’m fighting for – a new future!” A file obtained by Lenta.ru claims that all the posts cited here were published on the same day – 23 August.

“Just like you, I have something to lose, and I know what I’m fighting for – a new future!”
A file obtained by Lenta.ru claims that all the posts cited here were published on the same day – 23 August.

 

Navalny’s ad has reached even the popular anonymous comic artist who goes by the name Duran. To be sure, he posted not Navalny’s banner, but a video in which the candidate speaks for 40 minutes with doctors. The next day, this post was removed, but a copy was kept. It is noteworthy that this same ad at some point began to be actively spread by some spammers in comments (copy) in VKontakte, and the accompanying text said: “I was devilishly amazed when I found pornography on VKontakte (the text has been edited due to a ban on citing uncensored words—Lenta.ru). People were extremely surprised by the spam which was quickly removed by the administration of the social network, and representatives of Navalny’s campaign staff suggested to Lenta.ru that it was a provocation. In general, according to the staff, all of Navalny’s advertising is paid for from this campaign account, including ads on social networks.

In fact, there are communities of people who were moved to advertise Navalny voluntarily. This is what one of the musical publics on VKontakte – Music (copy) did. As a user close to the leadership of the community told Lenta.ru, the ad was published by them voluntarily. A similar case occurred (copy) with a no less popular public called “Restaurant Movie”.

Finally, even the most scandalous public on VKontakte, MDK didn’t stay out of the election campaign. [MDK are some of the letters for the Russian word meaning “asshole”; it is a group for posting obscenities and crude jokes—Ed]. The advertising posts weren’t published in the community itself, nor in its sister groups Eaglet or Institute for Noble Maidens, as one of the owners of MDK told Lenta.ru. MDK was offered only a “crappy ad by Sobyanin or some awful posters.” But a coub (a looped video with a sound track) on Eaglet about Navalny is simply a funny clip, not an ad or an anti-ad.

 

But on the morning of 28 August, Alexei Navalny’s face appeared as the avatar on MDK. The main image for the community in recent months has traditionally been beautiful girls – Diana Melison, a star on VKontakte has been there, and Sasha Gray, a former porn star, as well as Ayza Dolmatova, the wife of the rapper Guf. The administration of MDK also offered the other candidates – Sergei Sobyanin and Sergei Mitrokhin – a chance to pose for photographs to make avatars for their sister publics, Institute of Noble Maidens and Eaglet. As Anna Veduta, Navalny’s press secretary told Lenta.ru, Navalny’s photograph was placed for free on MDK. The selection of the community was dictated by MDK’s popularity – according to Veduta, in the last 30 days, this public had more than 5.5 million unique visitors, the majority of whom were adult residents of Moscow.

“Popular” Sobyanin

The supporters of Sergei Sobyanin, acting mayor of Moscow, have another approach to PR on the Internet. Officially, he is represented only on his campaign site, whose most salient feature is an “.rf” domain and a contact e-mail address on Rambler.ru. But Sobyanin’s main web PR is provided by a group of “supporters” who say they are voluntarily backing the candidate for his good deeds. The use of video ads is also characteristic of the pro-Sobyanin campaign.

But let’s begin with the site which formally appears to have been created against Sobyanin – it is named “Anybody But Sobyanin”. The site is a collection of three videos in which stereotypical personas – a Caucasian, a traffic cop and a parking attendant – blast Sobyanin for improving the city and depriving them of their ill-gotten gains or the opportunity to get drunk in children’s playgrounds. On a YouTube channel, there are two more heroes, an ad man and a bum. Each one of these openly negative personas urges people to vote for anyone but Sobyanin, swearing copiously and sometimes mentioning Navalny.

There are both pseudo-critical videos aimed at Sobyanin, and openly complimentary videos distributed across social networks. A popular platform for supporters of the acting mayor of Moscow is a community whose name cannot be mentioned due to media laws (we’ll call it ******). Thus, for example, there was the ad “The Man Who Changed Everything” (a copy remains in Google cache). Two beautifully produced ads describe Sobyanin’s achievements – for example, bicycle paths and the increased love of Muscovites for libraries.

Even so, there’s a much less popular YouTube channel “Sobyanin’s Campaign Staff” which publishes home-made ads about the love of Muscovites for their city father. The videos use the hashtag in Russian for “Sobyanin Staff” which is actively used by the Young Guard of United Russia despite the fact that the candidate is an independent and is strenuously quiet about his ties to the party of power. Lenta.ru was unable to find a mention of the staff channel on Sobyanin’s site.

The city of dreams can be made in reality, and Sergei Semyonovich knows how.

The city of dreams can be made in reality, and Sergei Semyonovich knows how.

Cats for Sobyanin

Let us focus in more detail on one more pro-Sobyanin site, formally not having any relationship to the candidate’s campaign state – My Friend Agrees. On this site, anyone who wishes can publish a photo of his domestic pet, who is campaigning for Sergei Sobyanin in one way or another. These are mainly cats and dogs, of course, but monkeys, snakes, goats and even a crocodile pop up there. The creator of the site, journalist Yekaterina Kostikova tells this story: once she posted a photograph of her cat Biker on her page on VKontakte and “completely unexpectedly, the cat became a social network star.” “Within a few days, the photo showing Biker in a bandana with the logo of Sobyanin’s campaign collected an unreal number of likes and re-posts,” writes Kostikova, explaining that this was the inspiration for her creation of the site.

If you go on Kotikova’s page on VKontakte, you will see that the post from 26 July showing the cat with the bandana “I’m for Sobyanin” got more than 2,190 “likes,” and that an amazing 715 users re-posted the image on their own pages. Even so, Kostikova herself does not look like a social network star; she has 300 friends and about 80 subscribers. At the request of Lenta.ru, the provenance of those “likes” thus seems fairly murky. Ilya Chekalsky, the technical editor of TJournal, analyzed the “composition” of those who liked the video with the campaign cat. He discovered that 295 out of the 712 re-posts analyzed were blocked by the administration on the night of 26 August for violating the site’s rules (usually that means the use of bots). Moreover, a random selection of those accounts that remained after the ban showed that often they were users (or bots) who reposted videos on their pages without any logic. Even so, Chekalsky managed to chat with a live user who confirmed that she really like the cat.

"I’m for Sobyanin"

“I’m for Sobyanin”

 

Upon further investigation, it was found that this same post by Kostikova was published in a number of publics about horoscopes. The videos were later removed (as has been explained, this is usually what is done with advertising) but the traces remain in Yandex’s cache – there’s a copy here and here. Furthermore, this same post on the night of 26 August remained accessible to the HS community which has 250,000 subscribers. After Lenta.ru made an inquiry to the administrator of HS and the horoscope communities (it was the same person) the clip was removed. The administrator himself said that in some communities, noteworthy clips may be published for free. To a direct question as to whether the horoscope communities were designated only for placing commercial advertising, he replied affirmatively.

As can be seen from a Whois look-up of Kostikova, on 29 July, three days after the publication of the cat photo, she registered a domain for the site, and on 1 August the site was opened. There is one more interesting detail: a community on Facebook devoted to the site was registered on 25 July (copy), that is, not only before the registration of the site itself, but even a day earlier than the post in VKontakte, which, as it is claimed, the story with the cat began.

Now, popular communities are advertising this site in particular – for example, that same site we called (******) (copy) with the saying, “Hipster Horse – That’s Not the Limit!”. But in the 20s of August, stars also got involved in advertising the site – Aiza Dolmatova, Guf’s wife; and Kseniya Borodina, the former host of At Home-2.

The mass media also noted the web site about Sobyanin animals. On 8 August RIA Novy Region reported (copy) on a contest, noting in particular the commentary of political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin who believes that the new site would give Sobyanin five additional percentage points. On the next day, similar material appeared (copy) at Utro.ru and on 20 August on the site Komsomolskaya pravda (copy). The structural elements of all three materials are basically similar – “a project is gaining popularity on the web”; “the authors are two nice girls, Katya Kostikova and Masha Ivakova” and next follows Kostikova’s commentary where she says “men and shoes” interest her “much more than politics.” The media also reports on the support from stars – Yelena Vayengi, Zhanna Friske, Mariya Kozhevnikova and Roma Zheludya. They also didn’t fail to mention political analyst Oreshkin and his forecast for the growth in Sobyanin’s popularity.

Lenta.ru did not manage to find a direct link from the animal site to anyone except the official face of the project, Yelena Kostikova. Therefore the recipe for success for this “popular” web site looks like this: a certain journalist sincerely posts a photograph of a cat in a campaign bandana. Then someone, apparently, out of the good of their heart, decides to put money into an ad with the photograph they liked (we reject the idea that Kostikova herself decided to put several thousand rubles into a paid repost – she claims that the popularity of the photo came as a surprise to her.) Then Kostikova and Mariya Ivakova ask their programmer friends to make a site for the cat photos. The web page appears within a week, and doesn’t look as if it were home-made. Next, yet another kind soul buys an ad for the site – and in really large communities. The mass media then pays attention to the cats and dogs and the success of the “popular” project is written up in practically identical texts. Stars learn about the site from the media and begin to make links to such a wonderful site at any convenient opportunity. All of this is done in less than a month.

 

Then there’s the site of Ivan Melnikov, the candidate from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. The site mixes news about the candidate’s activities with notices that he has become a grandfather for the third time. On Twitter, the Communist not only publishes links to his Live Journal blog but sometimes talks to himself. The most noteworthy example of Melnikov’s web activity is the Iskra [Spark] Internet community which links and coordinates the “red bloggers.” The site calls on supporters of Melnikov to re-tweet his particularly successful videos (links are provided), and to leave commentary on pages with his speeches or interviews, and generally, to actively distribute information. “Each of you is important to us; every subscription, every comment, every like.”

 

A talent for picking advertising platforms.

Mikhail Degtyarev, the candidate from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Nikolai Levichev from Just Russia have the weakest Internet presences. Apparently deciding that deeds speak louder than any online words about a candidate, Degtyarev has gone about introducing a number of controversial draft laws in the State Duma (he began with a proposal to give women up to three sick days a month during their periods). One of Degtyarev’s initiatives directly concerned the web: he proposed requiring users of social networks to go through a verification procedure during registration, and called for journalists to be prohibited from citing posts without the permission of their authors. Thus the social networks have seen in Degtyarev a follower of Sergei Zheleznyak, Yelena Mizulina and Vitaly Milonov, all members who constantly propose regulating the Internet.

Fatality. Melnikov vs. Navalny. Melnikov wins.

Fatality. Melnikov vs. Navalny. Melnikov wins.

 

Of course Levichev gained notoriety on the Russian Internet for the incident involving a break-in of the apartment of Navalny’s followers where supposedly two tons of illegal campaign materials were being kept, and also with his word puzzles using the slurs “nigger” and “yid.” It’s also a protest of sorts: instead of pandering to the whims of Internet users, force them to guess words in puzzles.

* * *

 

The stars (Kseniya Borodina) have been doing PR for yet another “popular” initiative, the “Add Sobyanin” site, which was created – if we are to believe the site’s information – by photographer Igor Kublin at his own initiative. Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff for the campaign, discovered some strange things on this site. The problem is that each VKontakte widget for other sites (it can be simply an “I Like” button) has its own unique ID. You can view who created the widget on a social media site, and this “Add Sobyanin” was made by the account MakeIdea Inc. A widget for the site with the slogan “Don’t chicken out, Navalny – take a lie detector test!” was made by the exact same account. The person behind the site is the nationalist Maksim Martsinkevich who goes by the nickname Tesak.

 

After Volkov’s blog appeared, some changes took place on the sites. The account MakeIdea Inc, which had made the widgets, was removed. The button “I Like” was removed from “Add Sobyanin” on VKontakte, and on Martsinkevich’s site, the widget was re-made from a new (and empty) account.