MOSCOW -- An opposition activist has accused the Moscow city government of fashioning thousands of young, civic-minded Russians into an “army of bots” to massage public opinion by posting messages on social networks lauding the mayor’s policies.
Leonid Volkov, an ally of opposition leader and anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, posted a screenshot on his blog (below) of apparent written instructions issued to activists in which they were invited to praise the Moscow authorities for bulldozing scores of street properties last week. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has said the kiosk owners fraudulently obtained property papers.
The Moscow municipal authorities have faced criticism for the decision, after which almost 100 kiosks were demolished on February 9 in an operation dubbed by detractors as Night Of The Long Shovels. Critics say the street properties were not built illegally, could not legally be designated for demolition, and that their removal makes thousands unemployed at a time of economic crisis.
In the alleged written instructions posted by Volkov, activists were invited to argue against these lines of criticism and praise the Moscow government's “liquidation” of the "vast majority" of kiosks and illegally built street properties, which they said “are a threat to people’s lives and health.”
Unlike the secretive “troll factory” in St. Petersburg widely reported in 2015, the supposed “army of bots” in Moscow is allegedly organized through a publicly visible, online community for members of Youth Parliament, a municipal-level movement partnered with the city government.
The Youth Parliament comprises thousands of Muscovites between the ages of 18 and 30 who are placed in Youth Chambers in each of Moscow’s municipal districts.
Volkov told RFE/RL that these chambers were formerly subordinated to elected municipal councils, but last spring they were made answerable to local government prefectures, which are under the control of the executive.
“Most likely, there are more of these instruments. What I have uncovered points to 3,000 people being involved in this work,” Volkov told RFE/RL, adding that he soon intends to post more findings.
WATCH: Muscovites React As Kiosks Demolished
The young parliamentarians are registered as members of an online community called Dvizhok, which means "engine" in Russian, where they are awarded points for carrying out “good deeds.” The activists are then ranked against each other according to their point tallies. The leaders of the website's rankings have accrued hundreds of points, while members are given promises of "career development."
“The ‘good deeds’ are not helping a granny across the road, not painting a bench,” Volkov wrote on February 12. “Good deeds for these young parliamentarians are -- as defined by the mayor’s office – ‘active work on social networks.’”
In his blog post, Volkov published a screenshot of instructions inviting activists to carry out an assignment which would see them rewarded with 17 points. The goal of the task was to write positively about the campaign to demolish the kiosks.
In a post on Dvizhok called Moscow Dismantles Danger, activists were prepped with background information and lines of argument: “Even a small fire in a building like this can be the reason for the death of 200-300 Muscovites!”
The post invited activists to link to another post written by local Moscow city newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva. It also asked activists to link to pictures casting kiosks as dangerous, including one that appeared to show a man in a diving suit shoulder deep in brown water descending into a concrete pipe.
Volkov posted screenshots of posts praising the removal of the kiosks that had been written by three leading points earners.
In a follow-up post on February 13, Volkov said he had received messages from disgruntled young parliamentarians who defended their participation in the project. In one such message printed in full by Volkov, Aleksei Murashov protested Volkov’s use of the term “army of bots,” noting that he is not paid a salary from the mayor’s office and only writes posts in line with his beliefs.
Several phone calls to the Center for Youth Parliament, a coordinating body, went unanswered.
Murashov protested that he genuinely supports the local government's demolition of kiosks.
“The reason for my personal participation in the given movement is my striving to show my civic position and to find like-minded people with whom I plan to participate in the creation of a nongovernmental organization at city district level.”
Volkov rejected this line of argument, saying that the Moscow authorities are using young people with the false promise of career progression. "They hope they will be selected and become municipal deputies at the elections in 2018. Of course, all of these hopes are absolutely unfounded," he said.
Volkov told RFE/RL that he will file a formal complaint to the Moscow prosecutor’s office on February 16.