“Dr. Strangeputin.” Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.
“Dr. Strangeputin.” Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

With well more than twice as many visitors as Russia’s most popular news websites, Yandex.News, an aggregation service offered by the country’s most popular Internet search engine, is perhaps the RuNet’s single most influential portal for information about current events. According to a study by Darya Luganskaya, published last week in the newspaper RBC, the Russian authorities appear to have mastered several ways to fool Yandex.News into promoting government-planted stories to an audience that surpassed 23 million people in April.

Luganskaya found that Yandex.News, which automatically aggregates stories from several thousand different news websites, is susceptible to various forms of manipulation, despite Yandex’s claims that it is protected against such meddling. The service appears to be vulnerable to at least three tactics that the Russian government and others have exploited.

1) Planting stories in the Russian media

Last May, Lenizdat.ru, a website based in St. Petersburg, revealed that a certain “photographer from Moscow” had recently offered it several thousand rubles to publish a story about a petition then gaining support on Change.org. The offer required that Lenizdat.ru publish the text precisely between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. on Monday, May 25. Even more curiously, Lenizdat.ru was asked to rewrite an article that was already published on another website.

Natalia Goncharova, Lenizdat.ru’s chief editor, says the offer stipulated that her website refrain from identifying the story as promotional material, which Lenizdat.ru publishes for 3,000 rubles per text. Goncharova turned down the proposal, and instead published an article describing the bizarre solicitation (though she refuses to identify the man who contacted her).

Why would someone pay money to place a story specifically within a 45-minute window? The answer has to do with the three basic indicators Yandex.News uses to rank reports and highlight the day’s “Top Five” stories: (1) the number of stories about a particular news event, (2) the prominence of the media outlets writing about it, and (3) the intensity and frequency with which news outlets are publishing these stories.

Though Lenizdat.ru refused to report on the Change.org petition, it appeared in various rewritten forms on several other major news outlets, including Lenta.ru, on May 25, roughly at 8 a.m. Afterwards, even more websites ran stories about the petition, including RBC itself. Accumulating 30 articles and more than 100 photographs associated with the petition story, it rose quickly in Yandex.News and joined the Top Five, where millions of people likely saw it.

2) Creating the news

So what is this petition that certain parties were so interested in promoting? On May 22, a man identifying himself as Robert Hill appealed on Change.org to the US Congress and the Obama Administration, asking Washington to grant American citizenship to Mikhail Kasyanov for his “invaluable contribution to support the US position on key issues foreign policy of Russia.”

Kasyanov, a former prime minister and now an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, angered many in Russia’s so-called “patriotic circles” last April, when he asked the United States to impose sanctions on Russian television “propagandists,” whom he holds indirectly responsible for the murder of Boris Nemtsov.

Written in poor English, Hill’s petition immediately attracted a flood of signatures, and it was this apparently breaking news that Lenizdat.ru refused to cover. According to RBC’s sources, Hill’s Change.org account was originally registered in Moscow. When some people started noticing this, Hill changed his profile to say he lives in Washington, DC.

RBC’s Luganskaya spoke to two different public relations firms in Moscow, which told her that Change.org is one of their industry’s favorite instruments for promoting different stories. Once a petition is live, PR agencies will publicize it with links placed in popular communities on VKontakte and Facebook, where it’s possible to gain an organic following that makes further targeted promotion unnecessary. Controlling for geography, age, and other social indicators, publicists are able to place the petitions before the eyes of the people who are most likely to sign it and tell their friends.

It’s through resources like Change.org, a source told Luganskaya, that it’s possible to influence Russia’s Facebook users, who typically make up an “educated, critically oriented group that follows the blogosphere and independent media.” One publicist claimed that roughly 10 percent of Change.org’s 950,000 Facebook followers are based in Russia.

Change.org told RBC that it runs checks on all the signatures its petitions receive. When Luganskaya’s article was published, for instance, Change.org said it had already deleted more than 15,000 signatures on the Kasyanov petition. That was on June 9, when it still showed 11,000 signatures. Today the petition has fewer than 3,000, meaning that Change.org has deleted at least another 8,000 phony signatures in the past week.

3) Splintering the state’s media outlets

Since the summer of 2014, several hundred Moscow government institutions and newspapers have joined Yandex.News’ registry of media sources. As a result, it’s become increasingly common to find trending stories about Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s various civic accomplishments. Suddenly it’s become a “Top News” event when Sobyanin opens a private kindergarten, attends a forum, or vows to repair a highway.

And just as soon as fluff pieces about Moscow’s mayor started appearing, the Russian authorities mysteriously abandoned their effort to subject Yandex.News to new regulations.

What does this mean for Russian society?

Asked to explain the significance of her findings about Yandex.News and Change.org, Darya Luganskya told RuNet Echo that “it doesn’t mean anything good for society.” Contrary to the hopes of many who say the Internet might rescue Russians from the grip of state propaganda, Luganskaya says “even the people not watching television can be manipulated by both the Kremlin and commercial enterprises.”

She says the average person likely has trouble distinguishing real stories from news planted by publicists: “The mechanisms for promoting [stories] through petitions is designed to build people’s trust. ‘Look—10,000 Internet users just like you have already signed,’ they tell people. They make it look real, so that real people might join in supporting it.”

Luganskaya says she doesn’t have any hard evidence that the government is behind these planted stories, but she expressed confidence, based on conversations with publicists and recent data leaks by the online group Anonymous International, that the Kremlin is responsible for promoting many political stories that make their way to the top of Yandex.News.

The Kremlin doesn’t have a monopoly on these tactics, however, and businesses have used them as lobbying tools, as well. Luganskaya says she spoke to one public relations agency that promoted a Change.org petition about an ecological issue. It became one of the site’s top-trending petitions worldwide, Luganskaya says, and the Moscow city government soon responded by easing regulations placed on the publicist’s client.

“This phenomenon is about manipulating the Internet audience,” Luganskaya says. “It is for power and it is for money.”

By Kevin Rothrock, Global Voices