The popular online petition and campaign site Change.org says almost all of the 150,000-plus people who signed a petition demanding the resignation of the Kremlin's reportedly ill-fated children's rights ombudsman are based in Russia, despite Pavel Astakhov's dismissal of his online critics as American puppets.
The Change.org petition called on Astakhov to resign over a seemingly insensitive remark he made while visiting child survivors of a deadly boating accident at a camp near the Finnish border.
Irrespective of the Change.org campaign, the anti-Astakhov effort appeared to have gained traction within Russia, as RBC on June 30 quoted "a source close to the Duma leadership" as saying that Astakhov had already submitted his resignation and would soon be leaving his post.
A number of Russians had publicly pilloried Astakhov, including the spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee, who implied that the ombudsman's statement to the survivors was beyond "the norms of morality and ethics."
"So how was the swim?" Astakhov asked one of 37 survivors of a twin capsizing that killed 14 people, almost all of them child campers, when a storm struck their boating expedition on remote Lake Syamozero in the northern Karelia region on June 18 and the camp's staff inexplicably failed to seek outside assistance.
Clearly feeling the heat, Astakhov dismissed the Change.org petition as an American smear and claimed most of the participants are Internet bots.
"Change.org is registered in San Francisco," Astakhov told Russian media. "Since when we express public opinion on American sites? The site includes a large number of Internet bots.... Even from my Instagram account I can see that 90 percent of them have come through Ukrainian sites just to make some nasty comments."
Not so fast, says Change.org.
Dmitriy Savelyev, the head of the company's Eastern Europe and Central Asia services, told Russian media on June 29 that the group checks and verifies every signature on its site, and that 95.8 percent of the signatories are based in Russia and that "all the participants are real people," Gazeta.ru reported.
Astakhov's question has since earned its own #какпоплавали (#howwastheswim) hashtag, which some Twitter users have used to highlight perceived official insensitivity -- including Astakhov's -- in the past:
User @Rustem Adagamov tweeted, "Astakhov suggests sending the children who didn't drown in Syamozero to the Black Sea."
@OMA800 tweeted under the #какпоплавали hashtag a link to a Russian news story reporting that "Five people drowned in Tula Province."
Another Twitter user posted an image of a sinking cruise ship with the suggestion that it is a "new meme from our authorities" and the caption "So how was the swim?"
Meanwhile, the petition calling for Astakhov's resignation had gathered 152,100 signatures by midday on June 30.
Astakhov has continued to insist his comment was taken out of context, although a woman present in the room when he made it is heard to respond, "Thank God they are alive."