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Russia's 30-Ruble Army Emerges Again

Last year, I wrote about Russia's "human bots," aka its 30-ruble army -- online commentators who were paid to trawl the web and comment on articles critical of the Kremlin.
Much like China's 50-cent party, these online commentators are paid a few hundred dollars to leave 70 comments a day from 50 different accounts. Hard to pin exactly on the Kremlin (it's the type of shady public-private partnership the Kremlin excels at), but entirely consistent with the Russian authorities' approach to the Internet: less filtering, more narrative-shaping.

There are now more details about how exactly this process works, after a group of Anonymous hackers released private e-mails allegedly from the pro-Kremlin group, Nashi.
The group has uploaded hundreds of emails it says are to, from and between Vasily Yakemenko, the first leader of the youth group Nashi – now head of the Kremlin's Federal Youth Agency – its spokeswoman, Kristina Potupchik, and other activists. The emails detail payments to journalists and bloggers, the group alleges.
Apparently sent between November 2010 and December 2011, the emails appear to confirm critics' longstanding suspicions that the group uses sinister methods, funded by the Kremlin, to attack perceived enemies and pay for favourable reports while claiming that Putin's popularity is unassailable.

They provide particular insight into the group's strategy to boost pro-Putin coverage on the internet, which in contrast to television is seen as being ruled by the opposition. Several emails sent from activists to Potupchik include price lists for pro-Putin bloggers and commenters, indicating that some are paid as much as 600,000 roubles (£12,694) for leaving hundreds of comments on negative press articles on the internet. One email, sent to Potupchik on 23 June 2011, suggests that the group planned to spend more than R10m to buy a series of articles about its annual Seliger summer camp in two popular Russian tabloids, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Arkady Khantsevich, deputy editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, denied that his journalists accepted money for articles, a widespread practice in post-Soviet Russia.
As Miriam Elder points out in "The Guardian" story, in the past pro-Putin stunts "advertised as spontaneous acts by average citizens were in fact orchestrated by Nashi."

If you look at much of the pro-Kremlin activism, it does have the look and feel of astroturf.

For example this "viral" video of oppositionists praying in front of the U.S. Embassy popped up on a recently created YouTube channel without any other content and received a relatively small amount of clicks. It only really surfaced after a report on the state-controlled RT.

Or there's this video of a Tajik guy singing Putin's praises and staring longingly at the Kremlin. Nothing is known of the singer, and he appears to have emerged from nowhere.

The sham is mirrored offline with the Kremlin bussing in people from the provinces, getting people's employers to pressure them to attend, and even reportedly paying for protesters.

The Kremlin is also pursuing other avenues of engagement, notably a new crowd-sourced platform online, Russia Without Fools, where concerned citizens get to bitch about bureaucratic ineptitude and crumbling infrastructure.

Essentially it's a slick parody of OpenGov, an Internet-age spin on the "if only the tsar knew" theory, where the focus of Russians' anger wasn't their leader with all his God-given grace but instead the bumbling and corrupt local officials.