Web brigades

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The web brigades (Russian: Веб-бригады )[1] are alleged astroturfing groups linked to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. They are purported to be teams of commentators that participate in political blogs and Internet forums using sockpuppets to promote pro-Russian propaganda. The concept has been described as a conspiracy theory by Alexander Yusupovskiy, head of the analytical department of the Federation Council of Russia.

First allegations of the existence of "web brigades" were made in the article "The Virtual Eye of the Big Brother" by a French journalist Anna Polyanskaya in April, 2003, in the US based online media Vestnik Online. In 2005 the journal stopped operations. The authors claimed that up to 1998, the audience of RuNet was predominantly supporting liberal and democratic values, and after 2000, vast majority of Russian Internet users started to support totalitarian views. [1][2]

In April 2003 an article in the online Russian Journal, edited by a political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, described that "web-brigades" theory as an attempt to create an argumentum ad hominem, and influence the Russian-speaking communities in the West. According to the article, the theory was invented to provide an explanation for Russian emigrants why many Russia-based Internet users are supportive of the new government policies. The author makes a point that rise of supporters of the government is due to low popularity of pro-Western ideologies after the 1998 Russian financial crisis, and the fact that new policies are meeting expectations of voters.[3]

In January 2012 several email accounts of pro-government activists were allegedly hacked, and what was called their mail made public. Messages showed references to groups of commenters that were reportedly organized and paid for comments by youth organization Nashi in 2011.[4]

In 2013 the US-based think tank Freedom House claimed Russia and China employ paid pro-government commenters and use other similar practices.[5]

Early concept[edit]

The term "Web brigades" describing the alleged phenomenon in RuNet, gained recognition in 2003 by a French journalist Anna Polyanskaya (a former assistant to assassinated Russian politician Galina Starovoitova[6]), French journalist Andrey Krivov and United States programmer and political activist[citation needed] Ivan Lomako. They claimed there exist organized and professional "brigades", composed of ideologically and methodologically identical personalities, who were working in popular liberal and pro-democracy Internet forums and Internet newspapers of RuNet.

The activity of Internet teams appeared in 1999 and were organized by the Russian state security service, according to Polyanskaya.[1][7] According to authors, about 70% of audience of Russian Internet were people of generally liberal views prior to 1998–1999, however sudden surge (about 60–80%) of "antidemocratic" posts suddenly occurred at many Russian forums in 2000.

Criticism[edit]

Alexander Yusupovskiy, head of the analytical department of the Federation Council of Russia (Russian Parliament upper house) published in 2003 an article "Conspiracy theory" in Russian Journal with criticism of theory of web brigades.[3]

Yusupovskiy's points included:

  • He thought that officers of GRU or FSB have more topical problems than "comparing virtual penises" with liberals and emigrants.
  • Commenting on the change of attitude of virtual masses in 1998–1999 authors evade any mention of the 1998 Russian financial collapse which "crowned liberal decade", preferring to blame "mysterious bad guys or Big Brother" for that change.
  • Authors exclude from their interpretation of events all different hypotheses, such as Internet activity of a group of some "skinheads", nazbols or simply unliberal students; or hackers able to get IP addresses of their opponents.
  • Authors treat independence of public opinion in spirit of irreconcilable antagonism with positive image of Russia.[3]

Team "G"[edit]

An article based upon the original Polyanskaya, Krivov, Lomko's article on web brigades and authored by the Independent Customers' Association was published in May 2008 at Expertiza.Ru website, the term web brigades replaced with the term Team "G".[8]

Sergey Golubitsky, journalist of Russian IT-related magazine Computerra commented on the story in July 2008:[9]

To tell the truth, I experienced the sense of paranoidal disturbance after getting informed of the results of Name of Russia vote and the report of the Independent Customers' Association. That feeling is familiar to everybody who upon having thumbed through the "Popular Medical Handbook" immediately unveils that one has the majority of uncurable diseases, symptomes of which precisely match your physical condition. So, judging by the "mainstream propaganda" points and the list of "major enemies", your old columnist must unambiguously be in service of FSB and join the well-matched ranks of the Team "G". But he doesn't – what's the trouble! And likewise, there are no members of the Team "G" among the vast majority of my friends – writers, artists, producers, journalists, medics (the very intelligentsia that we, as defined by the ICA, have to hate mortally – that is, to hate ourselves...), while they fully share my worldview.

The more, the worse is it. The "mainstream propaganda" is abundant of the great amount of saddening discrepancies with my believes: so, feeling sincere nostalgia for the USSR and deep distaste (hatred is too strong a feeling for me) to human rights defenders, Yeltsin and the abovementioned list of "major enemies" at the level of names and last names, I'm absolutely indifferent to "independent journalists" (because I'm the one myself), as well as to all tribal definitions of the list – Chechens, Jews, Americans. What the complete nonsense?! Why on earth would I hate all Europeans?! Or to the contrary – love employers or line-crossers of KGB?! Or – love Putin with the modern Rossiyansky authorities?[9]

Does the Team "G" prowl expanses of the RuNet? Quite probably. Moreover it's likely to prowl, why wouldn't it? But in exactly the same manner there's the Team "E" from the opposite camp, represented by the anonymous Independent Customers' Association that prowls, honestly fulfilling its agenda and entering released funds. But how are these "teams" related to real life?! Absolutely no way. Both of them are here at work while we, the ordinary inhabitants of the RuNet, live here. [9]

Nashi involvement[edit]

In January 2012 a group that presented itself as the Russian wing of the Anonymous published a massive collection of what they claimed to be e-mails of former and present leaders of the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (including a number of government officials). Journalists who investigated the leaked information discovered numerous references to an army of paid commenters that reportedly operated in the fall of 2011.[4] According to the e-mails, members of the "brigades" were paid 85 rubles (about 3 US dollars) or more per comment, depending on whether the comment received replies; some were presented with iPads. A number of high-profile bloggers were also mentioned as being paid for promoting Nashi's and government activities. The Federal Youth Agency whose head (and the former leader of Nashi) Vasily Yakemenko was the highest-ranking individual targeted by the leaks refused to comment on authenticity of the e-mails.[10]

Opposition web brigades[edit]

Tatyana Korchevnaya, a former candidate to the Deputy of the State Duma from the Other Russia list,[11] a former United Civil Front coordinator of the Primorsky Krai,[12] participant of protest demonstrations,[13][14] an author of the top tenth political blog of 2008 [15] claimed in February 2009 in her blog that she was a member of an organization of Russia's "discontented", aimed to run a mass Internet campaign to discredit the authorities.[16][17][18]

The project was allegedly coordinated by a Moscow-based manager, whose name Tatyana did not reveal.[17] The goal of the participants was massive Internet campaigning, disputing those who were contented with their living in Russia, advertising Garry Kasparov and Dissenters Marches, and talking about atrocities of the "bloody regime".[17] The participants used multiple nicknames to combat their opponents.[17]

Korchevnaya considered such scheme abnormal: "I believe that if someone is afraid to say what they think out loud from their own names then they are not a free person – it's as if they're playing for both teams."[17] She explained her confession with getting tired of the lie of those who she sincerelly trusted before.[17] The other reason was a concern for herself:

With every passing day I become ever more saddened by the things they told me. I began to experience hitherto unfamiliar feelings, which I only later figured out as like being a "sacrificial lamb on the altar of democracy".[16]

According to an anonymous source Tatyana referenced to, after she left the project it was "launched on a larger scale than was planned at the start", with participants "planning to ditch their real life jobs and embark on this project full time, especially now that they are going to get paid for it".[16]

Other events[edit]

In 2013 Russian reporters infiltrated a covert organization that hired young people as "Internet operators" near St. Petersburg and discovered that the employees are being paid to write pro-Kremlin postings and comments on the Internet, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture.[19]

Each commenter was to write no less than 100 comments a day, while people in the other room were to write four postings a day, which then went to the other employees whose job was to post them on social networks as widely as possible.[19]

Some Russian opposition journalists point out that such practices creates a chilling effect on the few independent media outlets that remain in the country.[5]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Virtual Eye of the Big Brother by Anna Polyanskaya, Andrei Krivov, and Ivan Lomko, Vestnik online, April 30, 2003
  2. ^ "Russian-American Russian Language biweekly magazine "Vestnik": Main Page [English]". Vestnik.com. Retrieved 2014-05-19. 
  3. ^ a b c Conspiracy theory, by Alexander Yusupovskiy, Russian Journal, 25 April 2003
  4. ^ a b (Russian) Kremlin's Blogshop by Anastasia Karimova. Kommersant Dengi, February 13, 2012
  5. ^ a b Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army, The Atlantic, by OLGA KHAZAN, 9 OCT 2013
  6. ^ (Russian) "They are killing Galina Starovoitova for the second time", by Anna Polyanskaya
  7. ^ (Russian) Eye for an eye by Grigory Svirsky and Vladimur Bagryansky, publication of the Russian Center for Extreme Journalism [1]
  8. ^ Team "G" (How to unveil agents of siloviks at popular forums in the Internet), May 25, 2008
  9. ^ a b c (Russian) Between Kitchen and Workshop, by Sergey Golubitsky, July 23, 2008, for Computerra magazine
  10. ^ (Russian) Kommersant Director General Files Complain against Nashi Spokesperson. Izvestia, February 9, 2012.
  11. ^ Full cell of agitators, November 2007, Kasparov.Ru (in Russian)
  12. ^ Events in the Far East, Polit.Ru, December 2008 (in Russian)
  13. ^ Militia in the form of protest, August 2005 (in Russian)
  14. ^ Bulletin of Russian Communists, 2006 (in Russian)
  15. ^ Tatyana Korchevnaya was included to the list of top ten Russia's bloggers (in Russian)
  16. ^ a b c Tatyana Korchevnaya's claims in her blog, Livejournal, February 24, 2009 (in Russian). See also the English translation of Korchevnaya's blog entry, performed by Anatoly Karlin
  17. ^ a b c d e f How Kasparov's "daughter" was cloned, by Elena Kalashnikova, internet newspaper Dni.Ru, February 29, 2009 (in Russian)
  18. ^ Response of Molodaya Gvardia on Tatyana's claims, February 25, 2009 (in Russian)
  19. ^ a b Internet Troll Operation Uncovered in St. Petersburg, The St. Petersburg Times, By Sergey Chernov, 18, September,2013