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Fake About Fakes: Russian Election Commission Airs Apparently Falsified Video Sullying Its Critics

A man looks at a screen showing polling stations at the headquarters of Russia's Central Election Commission in Moscow on September 19.

The video appears to show a major police operation to expose a troll farm churning out fake reports of violations in Russia's three-day legislative elections, which concluded on September 19 with a resounding victory for ruling party United Russia amid mounting claims of fraud.

Police officers are seen entering a typical Moscow apartment as a group of people film a scene. A young man tells the officers, his voice shaking, "We're just recording run-of-the-mill political videos, we're working on commission," and insists no laws are being broken.

A woman buries her head in her hands as the camera pans around to show election materials featuring images of jailed Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny and the logo of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which Russia branded "extremist" and outlawed in June.

The clip bears all the hallmarks of a major police bust, and appears to bolster the Kremlin narrative that shadowy actors were discrediting the vote. On September 18, the Central Election Commission (TsIK) aired it during a public session, with TsIK head Ella Pamfilova citing it as evidence of "how fakes are fabricated."

Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, addresses the media after polls close at the commission's headquarters in Moscow on September 19.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, addresses the media after polls close at the commission's headquarters in Moscow on September 19.

"A huge operation to delegitimize these elections is being prepared," her deputy, Pavel Andreyev, said before an audience of election monitors and viewers watching online. "This is not a TsIK fabrication."

Within hours, state TV channels were airing the clip, claiming the troll-farm employees had confessed their guilt. "This all looks pitiful," quipped presenter Olga Skabeyeva on the talk show 60 Minutes. "As if the White House or State Department are running out of money to support 'democracy,' as they like to call it."

The problem is that the clip may have been exactly what Andreyev denied it was: a fabrication. On September 19, the BBC's Russian service reported that two of the people featured in the video were actors paid to take part in a staged performance.

Using FindClone -- Russian-made software that matches faces displayed on a screen with the social-media accounts of their owners -- BBC reporters located the online profiles of the video participants and contacted them.

It identified two Moscow-based actors as participants, and found that both had responded to forum posts seeking extras in various film projects in Moscow, and both had joined pro-government protests whose participants are often paid small sums in exchange for attendance.

One of the participants, referred to in the article only as Maria, told the BBC that she had been asked to take part in the election clip without knowing what the project entailed, and when she arrived she was asked to read out a text about the elections before the cameras.

"I got a call from an acquaintance," she said. "I don't know who ordered it."

Responses to the BBC investigation on social media were scathing.

"The TsIK is fabricating fabrications. That's nothing new," a user with the handle Ad Absurdum wrote.

In an interview with the BBC, Andreyev said that he suspected "someone with bad intentions rented a studio to record clips [about election violations]." He added that the case was currently being handled by the police.

Pamfilova denied that the video was a fabrication, but provided no evidence. "This wasn't staged, I can guarantee that. We have official information -- these are established facts," she told the BBC. "When law enforcement sees fit to present them to the public, it will present them."

In a separate development, tens of thousands of pro-government bloggers participated in a coordinated campaign to spread positive reports about the course of the parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Russian Service found.

One such blogger in the northwestern city of Novgorod, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, shared with the Russian Service's North.Realities desk a screenshot of instructions he had been sent regarding how to cover the elections, without specifying who had sent them.

The instructions said that two posts should published each day of the elections, noting that local polling stations had opened and issuing at least one update about "what's happening at a polling station." The minimum number of posts during the voting period was 12.

One blogger didn't even bother to hide the purpose of one of his posts about the elections on September 17.

"I need to publish a total of 15 posts about the elections within 3 days," he wrote on the Russian social network VK. "So here is the second."

With reporting by Yelena Vladykina of the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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