MOSCOW -- For more than a month now, Moscow has been roiled by a controversial plan to demolish up to 8,000 old five-story housing blocks that were mass-produced under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and dubbed "Khrushchyovki" in his honor.
Many doubt that the 1.6 million residents of the buildings targeted for destruction will be properly resettled or fear that the plan is a thinly veiled bid by city authorities and construction companies to make corrupt profits. Critics have also expressed concern that some of the buildings facing the wrecking ball are not Khrushchyovki at all but rather historic buildings or simply structures located on attractive plots.
Earlier this month, Moscow authorities declared that 4,500 of the buildings under discussion would only be demolished if two-thirds of the apartments within them vote in favor.
Amid the controversy, the administration of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has pulled out all the stops to bend public opinion in the direction it desires -- including going under the radar to dupe residents, a new investigation by a Russian fake-news debunking site has found.
The website Noodleremover.news (the name references a Russian expression that says when someone is lying to you, they are "hanging noodles on your ears") looked at the most active posters or influencers on the pro-demolition webpage For Demolition! and found that almost all of them were activists in the quasi-governmental Center for Young Parliamentarism.
"It is a means for drawing young people into officially approved civic activism," said Noodleremover chief and Russian journalist Aleksei Kovalyov.
"I just began looking at these people, at what they post online, and I saw that they were all in one way or another connected with this center," he told RFE/RL. "They often have it written right on their profiles -- that they are a member of the Youth Chamber from one region or another. The members of these 'youth chambers' take on the role of living 'bots.' They are given tasks that they carry out and for which they get some sort of points. In exchange for their service, they are promised careers within the Moscow city government."
The Center for Young Parliamentarism declined RFE/RL's request for comment on this article.
The influencers seem to be instructed to use social media to amplify reporting from the Moscow city government's extensive media holdings, as well as to ridicule and downplay the significance of the grassroots movements that have emerged to protest the proposed demolitions.
Kovalyov is quick to emphasize that many of the ordinary members of the For Demolition! group actually live in Krushchyovkas and are in many cases desperate to improve their housing conditions.
"In these groups, there really are many people who are living in absolutely beastly conditions," he said. "And despite the fact that for the last seven years the mayor has completely ignored them, they still live under the illusion that this time they will get help. Their participation in these groups is entirely sincere."
However, he adds, many others appear to be wittingly seeking to mislead. The influencers that are most active in the groups are virtually all youths whose social-media profiles indicate they almost certainly do not live in rundown, prestagnation-era Soviet housing, he says. Some of them brag about owning cars that cost more than a small apartment in a Khrushchyovka.
The Noodleremover investigation also noted that at least three of the For Demolition! influencers had posted photos from the offices of a commercial organization called Sosedi (Neighbors). Sosedi runs an extremely official-friendly website with the slogan "my favorite city."
One of the influencers, Anna Murava, describes herself as an "editor" at Sosedi with responsibility for "media support of city projects" and "management of social networks." Another of the activists studied, Alina Ivanova, posted a photograph of herself with Pavel Melnikov, formerly a prominent correspondent for the city-run Vesti-Moskva news program, who now also appears to be working for Sosedi.
According to official records, as of July, another commercial organization called Media Management purchased a 99-percent stake in Sosedi. Media Management, in turn, is fully owned by yet another commercial organization called MIT, which in turn is owned by the property department of the Moscow city government. The general director of MIT is Aleksandr Shelukhin, who is public-policy adviser for Moscow Deputy Mayor Aleksandr Gorbenko.
MIT was created in 2004 "for the informational accompaniment of city projects." In December, it was granted a 2.53 billion ruble ($45 million) subsidy from the Moscow city government, according to the official state-tenders website.
No one responded when RFE/RL attempted to contact the telephone numbers on MIT's website.
According to Kovalyov, MIT first came to his attention during the 2013 mayoral election in Moscow, during which it published "fake information" aimed at discrediting opposition politician and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny.
As the Noodleremover report asserted, "Sobyanin is deceiving Muscovites with their own money."
Another aim of the influencers' activity, Kovalyov said, could be to create a "Potemkin village" of support for the benefit of Sobyanin himself.
"Sobyanin, just like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, lives in his own completely isolated world that he views through the eyes of his numerous aides," Kovalyov said. "This is being done in significant measure to convince Sobyanin himself that he didn't adopt some sort of wildly libertarian policy but that Muscovites genuinely support him."
Kovalyov estimates that the Moscow government spends a total of over 13 billion rubles ($230 million) each year on "informational support" for its policies.