When Zmitser Yahorau saw the number of "dislikes" for a Belsat TV story on YouTube about life in a Russian village, something looked wrong. Once the independent online news station's deputy editor in chief saw the data behind the numbers, he knew the problem -- "bots."
After the story was posted on January 30, it took only two days for the video to receive some 24,000 dislikes, compared with fewer than 2,000 likes.
A week later, as the station dug deeper into the numbers, they said all of the evidence pointed toward a "bot" attack against the story, most likely by pro-Russian sources unhappy with the content put out by the Warsaw-based channel for its Belarusian-language broadcast and online programs.
"The proportion between dislikes and views looks very suspicious. As a rule, people rarely click 'like' or 'dislike' on YouTube. The disproportion was evident, and we decided to find out from which countries people who actively disliked the post are. And we got curious statistical data," Yahorau says.
"It's understandable if there are reactions from Russia and Ukraine, because we have viewers and readers there. But in this case, many people from India, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, and Algeria were dissatisfied with the video."
Attack Of The Robots
Bots are computer programs that automatically rate, file, or annotate content found on social networks and online media such as YouTube, frequently in order to manipulate them.
Ironically, Google, the owner of YouTube, won't comment on the extent dislikes affect a video because revealing the information risks helping those looking to game the system. But analysts say they believe a high negative rating can influence how wide something is disseminated across the Internet.
As for Belsat, it appears the broadcaster is not alone.
With Western anger mounting over Russia's alleged "weaponization" of digital platforms and other information as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks a fourth presidential term on March 18, speculation that such attacks on Russian and other Slavic-language content to influence opinion online appear to have increased.
Germany's Deutsche Welle, independent Russian channel TV Dozhd, and U.S.-funded Voice of America and RFE/RL are all reporting suspicious data. All have asked YouTube to investigate the situation.
Belsat says proof that the data are being skewed by "bots" comes from statistical anomalies such as having only nine views of the video from India but 429 dislikes from users in that country.
In addition, it says 24,000 dislikes out of 52,000 views is extremely disproportionate, a sign the reactions were being generated automatically or the system was being manipulated in some way.
Similarly, VOA says it has seen "sporadic" spikes in dislikes on stories related to Russia, its president, Vladimir Putin, and Syria.
Blocking Critical Voices
Russian troll farms are nothing new.
They have been implicated by intelligence agencies and others in online-media manipulation for years, especially in high-profile events such as the vote in the United Kingdom on leaving the European Union and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Several U.S. congressional committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are probing allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump.
Moscow has long denied any role in election interference, but on February 16 the United States indicted 13 Russians for alleged covert efforts to interfere in the vote.
At the heart of the indictment is the Internet Research Agency, a Russian "troll farm" in St. Petersburg that reportedly employs hundreds of people to manipulate social-media content.
Deutsche Welle says its Russian-language programs such as DW Novosti have seen spikes in dislikes "at lightning speed" after running items about barred opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, sanctions against Russia, or negative stories about the vote in general.
"A statistical analysis shows that many dislikes came from Latin America. One broadcast about U.S. sanctions against Russia seems to have upset mostly Brazilians, Peruvians, Mexicans, Argentinians, and Colombians," DW said on its website.
Russian-language TV Dozhd says it sometimes sees thousands of dislikes of its reports within 20 minutes of their posting. Generally the deluge eases, but the situation has forced it to change how it operates on some Internet platforms.
"The Internet bots can decrease your website's rating or leave some negative or offensive comment that, in general, affects perceptions of the reports," Aleksandr Perepelov, the acting editor in chief of TV Dozhd, says.
"We had to completely abandon the comments option in the VKontakte social network, though we continue to hold on to it on Facebook because that would seriously affect the level of distribution for some reports."
RFE/RL believes some of its programming, such as its Russian-language Current Time TV and the Donbas Desk of its Ukrainian Service, has also been hit by trolls recently.
Data show some broadcasts with unusually disproportionate spikes in dislike ratings in recent weeks and similar issues such as higher numbers of dislikes than views for reports on Russian politics.
"The sudden appearance of these 'dislikes' is a crude attempt to discredit our pages. We have been documenting this for YouTube and understand they are investigating," says Joanna Levison, RFE/RL's director of media and public affairs.
"This is the first time we've seen this particular tactic. We do not wish to speculate publicly on who's behind it," she adds.