#ElectionWatch: Sobchak Enters As Opposition in Russian Race for President

Russian celebrity Kseniya Sobchak uses social media to announce her candidacy

(Source: Twitter / @sobchak_protiv)

Russian TV personality Kseniya Sobchak confirmed rumors of her potential run for the Russian presidency when she announced her candidacy on October 18. Sobchak pitched herself as a candidate against “everyone else”, arguing Russian society currently has no option to vote for anything other than current President Vladimir Putin or outspoken opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Her candidacy claimed to offer an alternative.

Nevertheless, Russian media reports suggested she is a Kremlin-promoted candidate.

A perfect candidate

On September 1, Russian media outlet Vedomosti reported the Russian presidential administration was considering a female candidate. Anonymous sources from the administration mentioned Sobchak as one of prospective candidates.

The article cited an anonymous source, who said:

Ksenia Sobchak is an ideal option. She demonstrates the image of a modern young woman who would like to go into politics, argues another interlocutor close to the administration: smart, bright, interesting, but not in all conforming to the image of a typical Russian woman, the question is whether she will decide to run.

A few days later Vedomosti published President Putin’s own comment on Sobchak’s candidacy:

Every person has the right to nominate his candidacy in accordance with the law. Ksenia Sobchak is not an exception here. I respected her father [Anatoly Sobchak]. I believe that he was an outstanding figure in contemporary Russian history. I’m saying this without an irony. He was very decent, played a big role in my destiny. But when it comes to running for presidency, things of a personal nature should be left behind. It depends on what program she will offer, if she really runs, how she will build her presidential campaign. That will determine success or failure of this project.

However, the most visible Kremlin opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, expressed skepticism towards Sobchak’s possible candidacy. Navalny hinted suspicion that the Kremlin will manipulate her campaign for their own purposes and split opposition into smaller groups.

During his weekly broadcast on YouTube, he said:

My attitude is extremely negative. It will be easy for me to criticize Kseniya Sobchak, even though we have good relationships. As far as I am concerned she already made her decision not to offer her candidacy, but to participate in this twisted Kremlin game named “Let’s have this liberal joke to divert attention”. We can call it just that. It’s not that Kseniya Sobchak decided to do something. [..] This is how I see Kremlin’s plan — make her like a cartoon liberal with ogre positions and represent opposition. She will get little votes and she will again piss people off with her political views and make the word “opposition” extremely offensive for some while again. [..] Why Sobchak needs it, is more or less clear. She is not a politician, she works in show business, therefore for her participation in the elections, regardless if people will call her muller, spoiler, is a plus in her career. It is more likes, more followers on Instagram, people pay you more for weddings. […]

Sobchak answered Navalny on Instagram the same day.

A part of Sobchak’s post read:

[..]But most of all I was upset by something else. When I went with you to Astrakhan, when you urged me to join the Coordination Council of the Opposition, you did not tell me that: “Xenia’s place in show business and I’d like her to stay there.” We all unite for the sake of one important goal — we demanded justice and freedom, and I, Tanya and Misha Shatsy, and Dima Bykov and others lost their jobs on TV and career because of these views. And now you are telling me: “Your place in show business, why go into politics?”. This is hypocrisy, which you have always spoken against!

Once again, you are great, and you are doing a lot of important things for our country, and you are risking a lot, but to alienate your own allies as soon as the prospect of political competition loomed is wrong, and this is leaderism.

Social media campaign

Sobchak launched her election campaign on social media, where she has a significant presence. Her most active social media account is on Instagram with 5.3 million followers. On average, her posts on Instagram generate 47,000 likes and 800 comments.

(Source: Keyhole.co)

For reference, users viewed her video candidacy announcement 1.6 million times and generated over ten thousand comments.

We cannot see how many likes the post received since it is a video; however, the announcement generated more than double then her previous record for most comments. This suggests that there is greater engagement on her candidacy than her average fashion and lifestyle posts.

(Source: Keyhole.co)

Sobchak’s presidential campaign also maintains an active Twitter presence. Although her official campaign account was created in May 2014, the account did not post until October 18, 2017. The post garnered 25 comments, 17 likes, and just nine retweets. Overall the account has 24.1 thousand followers and tweeted just six times. The creation date and number of followers suggest either that before October 18 the profile had different information and the user deleted all the historical tweets, or that her campaign created the account three years ago and raised followers. The public data @Twitter offers does not allow users to see historical profile information.

Separately, over 20 Twitter accounts claim to be Kseniya Sobchak. Sobchak’s YouTube channel, which has not posted in four years, is linked to one such Twitter account, @xenia_sobchak. The @xenia_sobchak account on Twitter was created in 2011 and has 1.66 million followers, an audience nearly 70 times larger than the campaign’s audience on Twitter. @xenia_sobchak last posted on August 15, 2017, which suggests the account is no longer active.

(Source: Twitter / @sobchak_protiv and @xenia_sobchak)

Sobchak’s presidential campaign also created a YouTube account on October 10. So far, the campaign announcement video remains the only video posted by the account. Users watched the video over 1.1 million times, whereas a 2012 video in which Sobchak pretended to be forced to vote for current Russian President Vladimir Putin received 2.8 million views.

Currently, the new YouTube account for the presidential campaign has 4.4 thousand subscribers, roughly a third of her old account’s following (15 thousand subscribers).

Sobchak also maintains a presence on Facebook and ВКонтакте (VK), a Russian social media network similar to Facebook. Both accounts express her personal views along with campaign content.

Left: (Source: Facebook / Ksenia Sobchak); Right: (Source: Twitter / @sobchak_protiv)
Left: (Source: VK / Ксения Собчак); Right: (Source: Twitter / @sobchak_protiv)

Although VK is more tailored to Russian audiences, her group has just 31.8 thousand members. However, hundreds of private VK accounts use her identity. In comparison, on Facebook, she has 131.5 thousand followers, four times more than her VK group.

Compared to the social media audience Alexey Navlany built up over the years, Sobchak only rivals Navlany’s following on Instagram, where she has a much larger audience.

(Source: @DFRLab)

Conclusion

Although rumors about Kseniya Sobchak running for Russian president on March 18, 2018 have circulated since September 1, and Vladimir Putin has nothing against it, her campaign if off to a quantifiably slow social media start. Her official accounts do not post much content on the campaign. The content on her more influential social media accounts (Instagram and Facebook) comprises a mix of fashion, celebrity lifestyle, and personal opinions that slowly turns into an election campaign.

We will continue to compare and contrast the campaign social media content, as its substance and audience remain a good indicator of the seriousness of the Sobchak candidacy.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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