MOSCOW -- Ever on the lookout for fresh ways to engage voters, Russian officials have long turned to the country's youth for help boosting their appeal. "We help you, and you help us" was an overture made recently by veteran party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky to a gathering in parliament with leading Russian YouTubers.
A similar sentiment appeared to stand behind an e-mail offer that was sent to several dozen video bloggers this month, with a request for help in promoting a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed this month and that will soon be put up for a national vote.
The e-mail, the text of which was posted online by several of the bloggers, came from a certain Gennady Voronov, who claimed to represent a department responsible for promoting official events. "It's very important for us to communicate the advantages of these amendments to all Internet users," Voronov wrote.
In exchange for payment, suggested the self-professed official, the video bloggers would explain why Putin's amendments are necessary for the country, citing a range of advantages that "will be compiled on our end." How much, he asked, would they charge for each minute of airtime devoted to praising the amendments?
The news quickly prompted an uproar on Russian media and among Kremlin critics, who picked it up as fodder for their ongoing campaign to discredit Putin's latest political project and the dubious national vote that remains shrouded in mystery.
"Seems that a whole trainload of money is on its way to YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms," Kira Yarmysh, an aide to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, said in a video posted to his Facebook page on January 24. "It was sent by the administration of President Putin, which desperately needs to promote its initiative."
"Place your bets on who sells out first," Navalny wrote on his Instagram page.
But the wind was soon taken out of the sails of those who saw the initiative as yet more evidence of the Kremlin's dirty tactics. On January 28, it emerged that the messages received by Russia's YouTube and Instagram stars were part of a stunt staged on them by fellow blogger Aleksandr Kharchevnikov, a 20-year-old prankster with a YouTube following nearing half a million subscribers.
In a video posted to his channel, Kharchevnikov explained that he used the made-up pseudonym Gennady Voronov in a bid to ascertain who among Russia's most famous bloggers would be willing to take money for aiding the Kremlin. The vast majority declined or simply ignored the request, he said, but almost a fifth agreed to post about the national vote for money.
Kharchevnikov may have seen a chance to test the integrity of his fellow bloggers, but Internet-savvy Russians know well that various popular online channels in the country receive state support or direct state funding.
An investigation in November 2018 by independent news outlet Proyekt found that many of the most popular anonymous channels on the Telegram messaging app are run or overseen by Kremlin officials and advisers, and many have been bought by the state since their initial launch by independent bloggers.
In the hall of mirrors that is Russia's segment of the Internet, some were wary that Kharchevnikov's prank could be part of an elaborate ruse meant to sow confusion.
"And what if this really was a government order, and the government paid for this video because of all the media publicity?" one person asked.
Others turned to sober analysis of the realities of today's Russia.
"The meme is funny, but the situation scary," one user chimed in. "How low must the level of trust in authority be that everyone was so convinced this offer was real?"