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Social Networks: A Tool for Kremlin to Control Its People

The influence of Internet and social networks on political life of Russian Federation is growing. Critics of current government assume that they are safe while they fight in weblogs and social media. But is it true?

Who’s Behind the Telegram Channels in Russia?

The monthly audience of Telegram messenger in 2018 went over 200 million of active users.

It’s only logical that Telegram became but the most important source of political information in Russia, and Telegram channels —both anonymous and personal— became the main source of spreading the information. Kremlin estimates the active audience of Telegram channels to be about 200 000, and the total number of audience to be 1.2 million people. That is not that much, but it is thought that these are the most valuable segment of audience: company managers, bureaucrats of federal and regional levels, parliament members, journalists, political technologists, experts and analytics, which can use the “correct” information of the channels in their activities.

The reason for growing of Telegram channels popularity is easy to explain. As opposed to social media, where information often “drowns” in discussions about the information, Telegram channels are isolated of the global informational noise, and the specific channels is associated with a particular media or a person which manages it. Which potentially can increase the trust to the source.

Hundreds of Telegram channels are working in Russia. The most promoted and influential would be: @russica2 “Незыгарь” (“Not Zygar”), @karaulny “Караульный” (“Watchman”), @akitilop “Акитилоп” (backward spelled “Politics”), @banksta “Банкста”, @boilerroomchannel “Бойлерная” (“Boiler Room”), @prbezposhady “Беспощадный пиарщик” (“Merciless PR Guy”), @yoba_m “YOBA Media”, @redzion “Красный Сион” (“The Red Zion”), @kremlin_mother_expert  “Кремлевский мамковед” (“Kremlin Mother Expert”), @krispotupchik Kristina Potupchik, @finkrolik “Кролик с Неглинной” (“Rabbit From Neglinnaya Street”), @kstati_p “Кстати!” (“By the way!”), @kaktovottak “Как-то вот так” (“About Like This”), @KotElviry “Кот Эльвиры” (“Elvira’s Cat”), @kompr “Компромат 2.0” (“Dirt 2.0”, or “Oppo 2.0”), @yudenich Marina Yudenich, @MayorFSB “Товарищ майор” (“Comrade Major”), @mediatech “Медиатехнолог” (“Media Technologist”), @mislinemisli “Мысли-немысли” (“Thoughts and Non-Thoughts”), @kbrvdvkr “Мышь в овощном” (“A Mouse in A Grocery Store”), @mysly “Мюсли вслух” (A word play for “Thinking Aloud”), @operdrain “Опер слил” (“An Operative Leaked This”), @solarstorm “Солнечный шторм” (“Solar Storm”), @ia_steklomoy “Стекломой”, @go338 “338”, @karaulny_accountant “Finansoviy Karaulniy” (“Финансовый караульный”), @rospres “Футляр от виолончели” (“Violoncello Case”), @fin_govoryn “Финансовый говорун” (“Financial Big Mouth”), @breakingmash “Mash ”.

Kremlin has started its expansion in Telegram at the turn of 2017. For working in Telegram Kremlin hired a former activists of the “Nashi” movement, with Kristina Potupchik as a head, and the pro-Kremlin “Civil Society Development Foundation” headed by Konstantin Kostin. Under the management of Potupchik the networks of channels appeared, which spread the information necessary to Kremlin and reposted each other (the experts name «Акитилоп», Ortega, «Полный П», «338» and «Медиатехнолог», «Методичка», «Минправды», «Давыдов. Индекс», «Караульный», «Футляр от виолончели», «Мышь в овощном», Kadyrov_95, «Следком», «Генеральная прокуратура РФ», «Московское метро», «Воробьёв Live» and many others).

Today the influence over the most popular political-themed Telegram channels is divided between Sergey Kirienko (17 most popular channels), Aleksey Gromov (5 channels) and the head of “Rosneft” Igor Sechin *6 channels). Telegram channel “Mash” with the audience of 450 000 subscribers is owned by Stepan Kovalchuk, a son of “National Media Group” president Kirill Kovalchuk, and a great-nephew to banker Yury Kovalchuk who is close to Vladimir Putin.

«Акитилоп» channel is owned by a consulting company “Mikhailov and Partners”, and is supervised by the CEO of “Russian News Agency “TASS” Sergei Mikhailov.

«Караульный» channel with almost 88 000 of subscribers aside from “Rosneft” is being linked to someone Nikolay Chernov, an employee of military counter-intelligence department of FSB.

«Незыгарь» channel (118 000 subscribers) is being connected to supervisor of informational policy Alksey Gromov, and to Vladislav Klyushin, an owner of M13 company which developed a media monitoring system “Katyusha” and the “Ceiba” TV audience measuring system.

All pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, aside from publishing the Kremlin texts, are ready to publish the third-party content, with a price of 30 to 60 thousand rubles per post — but not just any content. Resources like these have a “stop lists” with a list of forbidden topics — you cannot criticize the members of Security Council of Russia, members of Presidential Administration of Russia (especially a deputy head Kirienko, who is appointed by Kremlin to control the activity of messengers), President of Russia, prime minister, parliament members, Patriarch of the Russian Church and law enforcers. All content before publication is agreed with Presidential Administration on a must basis.

There are Telegram channels which are in the sector of Kremlin critics. They are created by Russian bloggers and journalist who are opposing Kremlin, such as Ilya Varlamov, Artemy Lebedev, Yevgeny Minchenko and Oleg Kashin, Sergey Dorenko (channel @rasstriga).

In addition, a number of anonymous Telegram channels formed in Russia , which turned into alternative source of “classified and exclusive” information. These are: «Дабл Ять», «Кремлевский мамковед» (“Kremlin Mother Expert”), «Сталингулаг» (“StalinGulag”), «Политота» (“Politics”), «Товарищ майор» (”Comrade Major”), «Новости как есть» (“News As They Are”), «Акитилоп», «Мастер пера» (“Master of the Pen”). Anonymous administrators of such channels do not bear responsibility for the veracity of their information, they merely propose their versions and the interpretation of the events, while reader is left to believe and draw the conclusions, whether a particular news is credible or not. Typically, these channels spread the supposedly “insider” information of some hidden movements in the corridors of power, prognoses regarding resignations of governors and ministers, warnings of banks and other financial institutions going bankrupt.

Anonymous Telegram channels long been the source of income, turned into a territory of bad publicity and undeclared excessive profits. It is obvious that disclosing of who is standing behind the particular Telegram channel and how much the “clients” pay for particular information promotions is not anywhere in the plans of channel owners. If the demands of Russian special forces to provide the “keys” to Telegram messengers were met, the courts with the lawsuits for defamation and tax offices with accusations of tax avoiding would instantly join the action.

Telegram’s Amazing Adventures in Russia

The limitation of access to particular web sites or content exist in many countries of the world, in this or that form. The leader of state Internet censorship is China, with its Golden Shield Project, which automatically filters all content by keywords and completely blocks the web sites from “black list”. Citizens of China cannot access popular international social networks, YouTube, some parts of Wikipedia, and the functional of main search engines is limited.

It is surprising that until last time Russia was a notable exclusion between the authoritarian states, which let its citizens to have a relatively free access to the World Wide Web. But there’s an end to liberties like these when it’s about a totalitarian state as Russia. Russian government started to take Internet seriously after the waves of protests from the supporters of Alexei Navalny.

At April 15th 2018 Russian leader took the first serious attack on the freedom in networks, when Russian Internet regulator “Roskomnadzor” (The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) tried to block Telegram messenger. What for? Technically, because Telegram refused to obey the new law, which obligated all Internet companies to store the data of Russian users on the servers physically located in the Russia, and did not provided the security “keys”, which would let intelligence services to read the encrypted messages.

Of course the attack against Telegram was justified by the war against terrorism, as an answer to terrorists actively using the encrypted messengers. And this is indeed a case. But in Russia this was an excuse for intelligence to use the access to a personal data in social networks to identify the users which posted the opposition-related content, or even for simple likes and reposts.

The responsibility for web site blocking was entrusted to Internet providers, which are obliged to filter the web sites with the IP addresses from the list of single registry of forbidden web sites which is constantly updated by “Roskomnadzor”. Aside from this, providers were required to install the special equipment (“Revizor” system), which was used by “Roskomnadzor” to check that the blocking is indeed enforced.

The attempts of “Roskomnadzor” to block the Telegram messenger of course disrupted the work of many Internet services, caused a multiple protests, but ended up as nothing but a farce. As soon as regulator was blocking one Internet provider, Telegram switched to another one. In two weeks of Telegram blocking its audience shrunk by less than 3%. More even, a number of volunteer assistants appeared, which helped Russian Telegram users to bypass the blocking — such as Vee Security, an Estonian software developing company. And the U.S. Agency for Global Media (which also serves as a trustee for media in other countries, financed by US Congress) posted links to a set of tools to bypass the restrictions on the specifically created web site “Bypass Censorship”. It included free for use software Tor Browser (a browser which transfers user’s traffic through the distributed system of proxy servers, managed by volunteers all over the world, and providing the option of anonymous connection), Psiphon (a software using the VPN technology for Android, to maximize the chances to bypass the censorship), Orbot (a proxy software for Android), Orfox (an analog of Tor browser, which passes the user traffic through a chain of servers located in a number of different countries), FreeBrowser (Internet browser with an integrated system of blocking bypassing which does not require setting up), Lantern (a distributed system of blocking bypass which uses network connections of other users of the software in different countries). All this software is free, Lantern and Psiphon can be requested via e-mail in case if links to web versions will be blocked.

For professional users there are universal tools. These are foreign VPNs. They pass the all your traffic through their servers and allow to bypass the blocking for any software, a messenger for example, or to work around the limitation on torrent connection speed. You can connect your home computers and laptops to these networks, mobile devices, and even some home Internet routers.

In one word, the Kremlin’s attempt on controlling Telegram in Russia failed completely. It became obvious that with some efforts from the web site or web service creators, blocking by “Roskomnadzor” can be bypassed using VPN networks, proxy servers and other anonymizers, with regular change of IP addresses with a help of virtual servers on largest hosting providers such as Amazon, Google, Digital Ocean. In addition, Russian powers have no leverage against foreign software developers of anonymizers, and it is extremely hard to block those successfully — there’s lots of tools to bypass the blocking, some of them can use new IP addresses with every connection, in the end users can create their own proxy servers on any cloud service (the fee of hosting would be a few dollars per month).

And even though Russian powers tried to fix the situation somehow, by adopting a law in summer of 2017 which “forbids on the territory of Russian Federation the usage of information and telecommunication networks, information systems and computer programs for getting access to informational resources, including web sites and/or web site pages in the Internet networks, access to which is limited on the territory of Russian Federation” — it was clear that this is a capitulation. More even, the document did not implied any responsibility of end-users for using the forbidden anonymizers and was not used in practice — there were no calls for blocking to “Roskomnadzor” from law enforcers. Later the regulator informed of un-blocking of almost 4 million IP addresses of Google, and claimed that now Telegram servers will be filtered in a targeted way.

It was clear that the victory is temporary; Kremlin is not used to lose and will make anything to close the bigger part of available workarounds. Most likely, Telegram soon will only be available through the proxy servers or virtual private networks, which will allow for hiding the geographical location of the user. This inevitably will make Telegram less attractive to ordinary users and will be one next step to Internet totalitarism, i. e. creating of exclusively Russian content, completely controlled by Kremlin.

All the Kremlin Forces to Control Social Media and Phones

Russian special forces are actively monitoring the Russian Internet segment. To monitor the open Internet resources, including blog platforms and social networks, a special analytical search systems are sued, which are now developed by no less than a dozen of Russian companies. Using systems like this the monitoring of open sources (media and different kinds of databases, including databases of tax office and home addresses) are conducted, the monitoring of blog platforms is provided (for example, the schemes are created as of personal connections, who is related to whom, and how people contact each other).

The documents published by WikiLeaks in September of 2017 witness of how Russian government controls the network and phones of Russian citizens. In the documents published by WikiLeaks mentioned some company named “Peter-Servis” with a headquarters in St. Petersburg, which developed and is successfully using a technology which allows the Kremlin intelligence to monitor the phone and internet communications of citizens, getting access to the data of mobile connections and Internet navigation. “Peter-Servis” company, which hosts over 1200 employees, was founded in 1992 with an initial goal of providing telecommunication companies with a billing software. But then Russian Federation special forces laid an eye on it, and it turned into a tool for FSB for creation of the software for phone tapping, which would allow to exactly identify who calls whom, when, how long the call takes, and where it is made from. The software of Russian company also includes the DRS (Data Retention System) which allows FSB to make queries to database which stores all the data, searching for information like calls made by a particular client of the phone company, the payment systems used, and the cell which the user was connected to. For monitoring of network traffic “Peter-Servis” developed a tool called TDM (Traffic Data Mart), which allows to query the base storing the data of user’s internet traffic, to understand which web sites user visits, whether he visits the forums of social networks, whether he opens the web pages with terrorism related or violent content, how long he visits the particular web site, and which device was used for the visit.

The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation back in 2012 made its first steps to active intervention in social networks of Russian Internet segment, by staging the closed tenders (total sum of approx. 750 thousands Euros) for development of systems of influence onpublic opinion via the social media. Three quarters of budget were spent on creation of “Strom-12” system which automatically spreads the prepared information in large social networks and analyses how successful the informational wave was. Currently the testing of terminals is taking place, which would allow to monitor discussions in blogs and social networks in real time. Accordgin to specifications from developer, system can analyze more than 60 million sources — posts in blogs, accounts in Twitter or on YouTube — and automatically identify the msot popular and important posts, or evaluate texts for being “positive” or “negative”.

The Fight Against Opposition

We must admit that the actions of Kremlin powers for control and manipulation of Russian Internet segment are quite effective. After evaluating of the role of social networks in protest movements, Russian government started to actively using this tool as a channel for spreading of disinformation and changing the vector of public opinion.

When Russians once again came to streets to protest against results of parliamentary elections, they was forced to admit with dismay that social networks which were used for organization of meetings and spreading the information of mass arrests, were drowning in the countless parasite messages. For example, the Twitter accounts created for this purpose, were sending up to 10 fake messages per second with keywords “Triumfalnaya square” and “Navalny”. Thousands of insults were being sending in automated mode, which filled all the informational channels used by protesters. The same methods were used in the “VKontakte” social network and in Facebook. When some opposition information web sites claimed the results of elections being falsified, they got a storm of phonecalls with pre-recorded pro-Putin messages: “Putin is good. Putin loves you,” the female voice been saying. “Putin is light. Life has no meaning without Putin.” For the whole week after the elections phone lines of some opposition parties and media were filled with these phonecalls and virtually paralyzed their work.

Today a number of web sites are banned in Russia, of different kinds, for example a social network for professionals LinkedIn (for breaking of rules regarding storing of personal data of Russian citizens on the servers located in Russia), the largest torrent tracker (because of claims by a few copyright holders), opposition media (by the request from Public Prosecution Service of the Russian Federation, supposedly for pages containing the calls for unlawful protest actions. Simultaneously and by the same reasons was banned the website of Garry Kasparov, an implacable opponent of Kremlin, chess grandmaster and politician.

It Didn’t Work Out with Telegram, But We’ll Get Even on Facebook

The failure with Telegram only spurred the Kremlin powers. The main goal (identifying the Internet users which do not agree with Putin’s politicy) they decided to carry on with a Facebook — an almost ideal tool of de-anonymization of users.

Indeed, with an advent of social networks and millions of Russian citizens voluntarily publishing their personal data in the open access, law enforcers got a tool which made their lives much easier. Back then one would need weeks of careful gathering of information from dozens of people to know what you can know about the person of offender or suspect by merely visiting his Facebook page. Beside of name, address and other basic information, social networks allow to identify the social circle, interests of the person in question, to track his cultural, political and religious views, and even his day-to-day routes. Even a search  history provides a unique “fingerprint” of user. Currently popular in Russia social networks “LiveJournal” and “VKontakte” allow for easy identification of their users. But Facebook, as opposed to Russian counterparts, allows to not only identify the real user, but also to create a full scale social and psychological portrait. No other wide spread social network requires to fill its database with that much personal data as Facebook. More even, as a professional spammer, Facebook “scans” that data, informing about the existence of a user anyone who can be connected with him in real life. In one word, Facebook is a true gift for special forces and intelligence.

Internal policy department of Presidential Administration of Russia became a pioneer in monitoring social media. Even before the State Duma elections its curator Vyacheslav Volodin installed a “Prisma” system developed by a “Medialogia” company, which allows for real time monitoring of discussions in social networks and weblogs.

This system can track the standalone blogs and social networks with approx. 60 million users. It analyzes the tonality of sayings from each source with the margin of error of 2-3% virtually in real time (with a few minutes lag). Monitoring encompasses virtually all platforms, including Facebook, LiveJournal blogs, Twitter, YouTube. Monitor screen shows the news most discussed in social media, they are shown as a top news stories (clusters). It is possible to see which posts form this or that top news story. For each story, the messages are evaluated by the character of mentioning, a number of negative and positive posts is shown on the screen. The screen also shows the diagram of informational attacks, which shows the share of bots on negative content (a relation between negative bots to the total number). Terminals of “Prisma” systems are installed not only in offices of Putin and Medvedev, but also in the offices of heads of Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Security Service, Moscow mayor office, in the office of State Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin, in the office of “Rosneft” CEO Igor Sechin, etc.

The Unfavorable Prognoses

Social networks are a perfect source of information for intelligence because of naivety of Russian citizens who publish a lot of personal data in these networks.

A total online control helps Kremlin to manage the social and political activity of part of Russian citizens. The attempts of government machine to control social networks and their users will continue.

We can make a prognosis with some confidence that the development of non-anonymous networks for Russian government is a priority, because they wouldn’t need any procedural actions. And a kind of a deal is possible between the government and the owners of social networks, in a way of “we allow you to develop, while we will control it”.

The most important political events in Russia will continue to be followed by the attempts to infiltration of technical tools for manipulation with groups in social networks with the aim of directing the network discussion in the required direction and to inject the required point of view.

And the circle of suspicious citizens of Russian Federation is already designated as a target for total surveillance. From informal youth movements to football fans and religious adepts.

У самурая нет цели, есть только путь. Мы боремся за объективную информацию.
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