The producers of a new daily political talk show on the national TV network Pervyi Kanal have created an army of Twitter bots to post fawning comments they can show on air, presented as engaged public feedback, according to the newspaper Vedomosti. On June 20, the show’s hosts, Ekaterina Strizhenova and Anatoly Kuzichev, announced that viewers would be able to send comments and questions to the show via Twitter, with the “most interesting” tweets appearing on air. After the “interactive experiment” got off the ground, however, journalists quickly discovered that most of the feedback appears to be coming from extremely fake-looking Twitter accounts.
The first group to notice the scheme was “Metodichka,” an anonymous channel on Telegram that discusses political news and conspiracy theories. The channel’s authors studied four episodes of the show “Time Will Tell,” and learned that many of the Twitter accounts whose messages were displayed during the program appear to belong to accounts all registered on the same day: June 20, when the new “feedback system” was announced. Metodichka found, for example, that the bots sent in generally anti-Ukrainian comments when the show addressed the situation in Ukraine, and producers dutifully aired those comments.
“Time Will Tell” has embraced its new Twitter feedback gimmick in a big way, refreshing the tweets displayed on air every two minutes. Currently, no other program on Russian network television so aggressively broadcasts social media content from viewers.
Vedomosti examined 40 Twitter accounts whose tweets were displayed on the show’s June 30 broadcast. The vast majority of these accounts were registered earlier in June, and most of them had a minimal number of followers and tweets. Many of these accounts — usually claiming to be based in Ukraine, Germany, or for some reason the United Arab Emirates — have only posted messages addressed to the show.
Apparently in an effort to make the bots seem more realistic, some of the comments mention something aired in a specific episode (like compliments about Strizhenova’s outfits) or they offer some light criticism (like complaints that producers keep inviting back the same “bored” experts).
Vedomosti also analyzed the show’s own Twitter followers. The “Time Will Tell” (@Vremya_Pokazhet) account was only created on June 5, and it now has more than 10,000 followers. Looking at just the first 100 followers, Vedomosti says at least 52 of the accounts appear to be obvious bots, registered less than a month ago, with hardly any followers themselves, tweeting only at the show.
A network representative for Pervyi Kanal told Vedomosti that the channel would investigate the allegations, insisting that the use of bots is not company policy.
Show host Anatoly Kuzichev told Vedomosti that “Time Will Tell” gladly shows tweets from new Twitter users, saying these accounts are not bots. Kuzichev argues that the accounts are new because the show’s viewers are responding to the new feedback promotion. He could not explain, however, why these accounts have continued to tweet only at the show, weeks after joining Twitter.
While the producers of “Time Will Tell” have been uniquely enthusiastic about sharing audience content from Twitter, Russian television is no stranger to broadcasting viewer posts from social media. Since 2014, “Golos,” another show on Pervyi Kanal, has also aired some tweets from viewers. During Vladimir Putin’s live telethon earlier this year, the TV network Rossiya-1 broadcast questions and comments from people around the country addressed to the president. The messages came from Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki users.