#ElectionWatch: Sex, Polarization, and Voter Turnout in Russia

Unclear origins of viral videos calling on Russians to participate in presidential elections that are a foregone conclusion

Title and subtitle translated from Russian: “Just for adults: For those, who can do anything — even vote.” (Source: VK)

The Russian presidential elections scheduled on March 18, 2018 are approaching. The process is hardly a representative democratic process and no one doubts the imminent victory of current Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, given opposition’s call to boycott the vote and protests during Putin’s last re-election in 2012, the main question remains whether Russians turn out in what is seen as a one sided race.

Turnout, rather than the result itself, will likely be a better indicator of Putin’s relative popularity in what is likely the last term of his 18-year reign, so the Russian Central Election Commission (CIK or ЦИК) is pushing to get Russians to participate.

The internet is not exempt from CIK’s push for greater turnout. Multiple viral videos appeared on the Russian web space calling to participate in the elections as March 18 draws closer.

Homosexuals, army and hyperinflation

The most popular video calling for voter turnout in Russian elections appeared on February 16. The video started with an argument between a husband and wife about whether to vote just before they go to bed. The husband’s ensuing nightmare depicts a Russian general declaring military conscription until age 60, a gay man flirting with him, and dramatic inflation in the domestic economy. When the husband wakes up, he urges his wife to vote.

https://www.facebook.com/ale.kazakov/videos/1668446799860272

Independent Russian media outlet Meduza tried to track down the authors of the video with no success. Dozens of copies of the video were published on YouTube, VKontakte (VK), and other social media platforms. One of the first and the most popular shares was published on Facebook by the adviser to the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Kazakov, according to the Meduza. 
 
The video made news on Russian state-owned television Rossiya 24 on February 19.

The anchor said:

It is clear. It is a social commercial in the form of a viral video. It already managed to provoke storming discussion. According to the internet comments, there were people who liked it — it was funny and well-produced. Others almost saw the 282 article of the Criminal Codex about the hate speech, for example, targeting the homosexuals. It is strange, but there were such critics.

The journalist who researched the subject used the language that implied she knew the authors of the video. She said:

They wanted to smile, motivate, remind about the election day, as the authors of the video said themselves, did not want to offend anyone.

[..]

It worked. Judging by the speed the video is spreading, millions of people heard the call of consciousness. This is exactly what the authors of the video expected.

Nevertheless, the story by Rossiya 24 did not name or include an interview with the director or the producer of the video. The only person directly involved with the project interviewed by the journalist was Svetlana Galka, the actress who played the wife.

Left: Svetlana Galka’s interview. (Source: YouTube/ Россия 24); Right: Svetlana Galka’s role. (Source: Facebook/ Александр Казаков)

Meduza also attempted to get in touch with Sergey Burunov, the actor who played the main character, but was unsuccessful. The article read:

Actor Sergei Burunov did not respond to the call of Meduza. His agent said that he refuses to communicate with the press about the video.

Elections for 18+

The authors of another viral video were significantly more risqué. Rosvideo, a video production company, published it on February 14. The video showed a female flirting with a male in a club, but she refuses to engage more intimately after the male admits he did not vote. The video concluded with the slogan: “18.03.2018. Elections just for adults.”

Two weeks after the video was first released, Rosvideo published an explanation for the video. The statement read:

Why did we shoot a video about the elections? Because we got fed up with the political advertisement in the recent years. We decided to intervene and made our own version for the guys and girls who will vote on March 18 for the first time.

If the video reaches a million views, we will go to the Cannes Lions!

Earlier, on February 20, managing Partner of Rosvideo Mikhail Cherepanov told Meduza that this video is the first of a series of similar videos. At the time of this report, the company had not yet published any new videos calling for participation in elections.

The same idea of connecting sexual and political adulthood was used by the Russian-language male magazine “Maxim”. It created a VK page named “Just for adults”.

Title translated from Russian: “Just for adults: For those, who can do anything — even vote.” (Source: VK)

The content of the page is satirical, erotic, and visually appealing. All images contain the message of when the elections will take place.

Left text translated from Russian: “Enemy forces forbid promoting beauty and civil position not only here, but also in friendly countries! Look at the active position of Italian Paola Saulino with an adult political view from the left, right and even centrist sides.” (Source: VK/ Только для взрослых); Middle text: “If it continues so, then until March 12 as many as 3 million people will have time to file a statement and vote 18 where they feel comfortable. And what are you waiting for?” (Source: VK/ Только для взрослых); Right text on the image: “Your face when you spent the March 18: (left) at a polling station; (right) in a summer cottage. (Source: VK/ Только для взрослых).

The first post published on January 16 implied “that” those avoiding elections are handicapped.

Top left text translated from Russian: “Hey, robot, can you help me?”; Top right text: “I am sorry, I am helping only invalid people”; Bottom left text: “Elections never changed anything. I will not vote”; Bottom right text: “How can I help you?” (Source: VK / Только для взрослых)

The VK page had at least 444,907 followers at the time of this report.

On February 26 editor-in-chief of Maxim magazine Alexander Malenkov told Radio Freedom that the VK page was created in collaboration with VK and a “third party” Malenkov did not name. According to Malenkov, the idea of the page belonged to the “third party”, while Maxim was responsible for populating it with content.

Pregnant woman

The origins of the third viral video were not particularly clear. It showed a pregnant woman jumping in a back seat of a taxi and urging the driver to go. The driver assumed that the woman is about to give birth, but it turned out that she was in a rush to vote.

The video was first published on a YouTube channel “Ivan”. The channel has just 15 subscribers published video game recordings and instructions on how to repair a power plug prior to this video.

Russian Army online media Zvezda TV wrote about the video two days later, on February 18. Zvezda used the video published on another YouTube channel named “Strelec Drakon” on February 17.

@DFRLab identified the same video published on YouTube channels like “Svetlena Zayceva”, “HONEY LIFE”, and “kurilka — wagon”.

Rapping pensioners and official videos

The content of the videos that call on the Russian electorate to participate in the elections vary from funny to patriotic to heartwarming.

On February 20, Novouralysk Broadcasting Company published a video on YouTube with young rappers and pensioners singing about the elections.

On February 16, a regional TV channel of Perm published a video that used patriotic sentiments of serving in the army and caring for the future of the country.

There were also many videos published on CIK’s YouTube channel that used the theme of family and friends to invite people to vote from any place in Russia. On February 23, CIK published an uplifting patriotic video that — again — called on Russians to make a decision to participate in elections.

On January 17, CIK published a video showing how a visiting friend can vote despite being away from his home.

Another video published on February 14 showed young adults discussing their travel plans to make the point that travel will not affect their voting abilities.

The same day CIK published a video with a mother and a daughter having a Skype call. The message of the video was that the daughter can vote from the place where her university is.

On February 22, CIK published a YouTube video that targeted traditional family values.

Who runs the digital campaign?

In August 2017, Russian media outlet RBC reported about CIK planning a digital campaign for the Presidential elections. The article was based on information provided by two anonymous sources — one allegedly close to President Putin and another source close to the Election Commission. Both sources mentioned Mail.Ru Group as the most likely candidate for preparing and executing the digital campaign. Mail.Ru Group owns the biggest consumer email service across the Russian web, popular Russian social media platforms VKontakte, Odnoklasniki, Moy Mir, many leading online games and an offline mapping service Maps.me.

According to an Excel table published on CIK’s web page, the Commission allocated 66,677,517.48 rubles ($1,170,857.21 US dollars) for the “services to inform Russian citizens on internet”. There was no official mention of Mail.ru Group as the beneficiary of allocated funds.

(Source: Russian Central Election Commission)

Mail.ru Group was not mentioned among the web pages that agreed to spread the participation campaign materials.

Conclusion

In February, at least three viral videos with ambiguous origin circulated around the Russian internet calling for voters to participate in the Russian presidential elections.

The origin of the video about the nightmare of hosting a gay man and going to army at the age of 52, as well as the origin of the video about a pregnant woman rushing to vote remain effectively unknown. Both were spread by dozens of various accounts on YouTube, VK, Facebook, and other social media platforms. The idea to connect sexual maturity with political maturity was used by Rosvideo and Maxim magazine through a VK page called “Just for adults”. The Russian Central Election Commission also produced short videos agitating the citizens to participate in the elections, but its videos did not go viral.

Overall, the campaign to drive up participation in Russian “elections” on March 18 achieved significant audience impact by the time of this report. The Kremlin’s attempts to reach young audience online signal that the boycott of the elections initiated by the fiercest Kremlin opposition leader Alexey Navalny, affected the prospects of the turnout.

As the election result is essentially a forgone conclusion, the voter turnout, rather than the result itself, will likely be a better indicator of Putin’s relative popularity, and thus power, in what will likely be his last term.

The @DFRLab will continue to monitor events and information in the lead up to Russian elections on March 18.


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

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.