Early in the morning of October 3, I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.
"A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president's low ratings, a night news anchor said. "He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin's speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama's speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president."
I was surprised. I wrote my American friends and readers on Facebook, asking them to comment on the results of this poll.
Here's what I found out in just one hour: The Daily News did not conduct this poll; its website merely carried a link to the survey. The poll itself was conducted on a special website where anyone can post a topic on which to vote.
Here's one example: Among the top 20 authors on this site is a certain Sergei from Yalta, in Crimea, seized from Ukraine by Russia last year. Sergei is currently conducting a poll on the following question: "Which country deserves respect, Russia or Ukraine?" The poll is illustrated by the flags of the two countries, the Ukrainian one bearing a stamp that says "sold."
On September 29 -- the day after Obama and Putin presented sharply opposing views on Ukraine, Syria, and other issues in their UN speeches -- one of this site's users started a poll asking, "Who had the strongest arguments, Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?"
The user who started the poll uses the same name as the newspaper, and is one of its employees. But while the Daily News posted a link to the poll on its website, a representative of the newspaper's editorial team told me that the poll itself had nothing to do with the newspaper or its readership -- the employee conducted it as a private individual. The employee, I found, does not appear on the list of the site's 100 most popular users.
Shortly after the poll was announced, two Russian social-networking sites -- Yaplakal and the "Anti-Madian" group on Odnoklassniki -- posted links to this U.S. poll and called on users to cast votes.
Sure enough, many users responded. Some not only voted, but also left boorish comments about Obama and his country.
If until then the results had been more or less even, the enthusiasm of respondents rose exponentially. And it rose in favor of Putin.
One of the people who responded to my appeal on Facebook, physicist Konstantin Matyash, exposed the whole scheme in three clicks. First he went to the site of the poll -- where, seeing the rude comments in Russian, he judged that this was clearly an Internet flash mob. Pasting the link into a search engine, and instantly came upon the two Russian sites that urged users to vote.
This is how the 96 percent figure, which Rossia 24 swiftly presented as the votes of U.S. citizens, came to be.
Rossia 24 was not alone. State-run news agency RIA Novosti also reported Putin's alleged victory over Obama on U.S. soil.
"More than 95 percent of readers of the U.S. newspaper New York Daily News think Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded more convincing than U.S. President Obama during their speeches at the UN General Assembly," it said. "The American president lags far behind his Russian counterpart."
A day later, on October 4, a text in which former RIA Novosti employee Aleksei Kovalyov slammed the agency for the report appeared online. Kovalyov described in detail the mechanisms used to create such "American polls" -- but his expose, like our Facebook discussion, fell on deaf ears.
By October 5, skewed reports of the poll results adorned leading Russian media, boldly showcasing Putin's purported triumph over Obama.
"Since the main good guy in the person of the United States is publicly failing to take action, Vladimir Putin…has taken up the mantle of the Jedi and assumed the role of fighter against this evil," the magazine Ekspert said on October 5, referring to Islamic State (IS) militants.
It went on to say that "in a poll on the New York Daily News website, 31,390 readers backed Putin's arguments about Syria at time of print, while 1,391 readers, or 4 percent of respondents, backed Obama's," and that the United States was "changing its perception of Russia."
"[Putin's] speech at the UN General Assembly and the subsequent involvement of Russia in the fight against IS has drawn support from politicians, media outlets, and citizens of various countries," the daily Izvestia reported. "A poll was conducted on the website of the New York Daily News to determine whose remarks at the UN General Assembly readers found the most convincing -- Vladimir Putin's or Barack Obama's. The Russian president received more than 90 percent of the votes."
Russia's official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, cited RIA Novosti as reporting that "more than 95 percent of readers of the New York Daily News believe Russian President Vladimir Putin was more convincing than the U.S. president at the UN General Assembly."
Users on Yaplakal and Odnoklassniki's "Anti-Maidan" group -- the people Russian media called "U.S. citizens" and "readers of the New York Daily News" -- may not have suspected what a great role they would play in consolidating the image of Russia and Vladimir Putin -- at least in the eyes of the Russian media.
Nor did they know they would become victims of a strange irony: transformed by propaganda into the "Americans" some of them love to loathe.