#ElectionWatch: Turnout by Stick and Carrot in Russia

How the Kremlin is promoting elections to maximize turnout

Left: (Source:Black Star Burger); right: (Source: VK)

Ahead of the Russian presidential elections scheduled for March 18, Russians witnessed an unprecedented engagement campaign that penetrated almost every aspect of their daily lives. In December 2017, Russian media outlet “Vedomosti” reported that an additional 770 million rubles (13.5 million USD) were allocated for the propose of informing citizens about the elections.

Opposition led by Alexey Navalny has called for a nationwide boycott of the vote. As previously reported, turnout, rather than the result itself, will likely be a better indicator of Putin’s relative popularity. @DFRLab compiled the various forms of the engagement campaign aimed at high election turnout.

On March 1, Russian online TV channel “Otkrytiy Kanal” counted 20 election billboards on a stretch of 2.3 kilometers placed in the city of Saratov. The report encouraged the channel to create a satirical video about the Kremlin’s information campaign. The ensuing video showed a man who went to a shop and left with a call to participate in the elections written on his receipt, shopping bag and everywhere he looked around him. However, none of the campaign promotions were props. All items — including the billboards, receipts, and shopping bags — were real.

Getting as close to a voter as possible

The call to elections on a shopping bag and receipts is not the only way used to reach Russian citizens on the topic of the upcoming elections. On March 5, a Twitter user @mybaandoo started a discussion about the election announcements on public transport.

Text translated from Russian: @mybaandoo, “I am f*** fed up with the election campaign it is just everywhere I think I’ll go to the toilet and out of the toilet a voice will say DO YOU REMEMBER THAT ON MARCH 18 IS THE ELECTION OF THE PRESIDENT OF RF AND DO YOUR KNOW THAT YOU CAN VOTE REGARDLESS OF YOUR PERMANENT RESIDENCE”; Second text translated from Russian: @chimotoma, “I just saw this tweet, went into a trolleybus, doors closed, and a voice said “THE CENTRAL ELECTION COMMETEE OF RUSSIAN FEDERATION INFORMS THAT ELECTIONS WILL TAKE PLACE ON MARCH 18…” (Source: Twitter/@mybaandoo)

Similarly, on March 6, Twitter user @knsqts posted about election announcements on the metro and tram.

Text translated from Russian: “God, they announced that the elections are taking place in March 18 in metro”; “God, in tram they announced that the elections are taking place in March 18 too” (Source: Twitter/@knsqts)

On March 13, the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF or ОНФ) movement initiated by the current Russian President Valdimir Putin, posted a video on Facebook showing how two graffiti artists, Igor and Denis Fedosenko, are drawing graffiti in Moscow calling to the elections.

https://www.facebook.com/onfmoskva/videos/812116298988136/

Previously, on February 22, “Otkrytiy Kanal” reported about the graffiti artists drawing in the city of Saratov. One of the brothers called it an act of citizen activism, not a political campaign. Overall, the brothers visited 15 big Russian cities.

The turnout campaign took place in hospitals, too. On March 6, Twitter user @CaoDegunino posted images from a children polyclinic with posters calling to elections.

A call to vote was shared also by the medical personnel of a hospital in Novogireyevo.

Turnout by Carrot

Two different strategies to get Russians to vote were used by shops, restaurants, universities, hospitals, and other common gathering places for Russian citizens.
 
Commercial organizations and some universities used “carrots” in a form of promotions and special offers.

On March 11, a Russian cyber activist Sonya Blade tweeted about a special burger offer. The discounted burger “candidate” came together with a t-shirt that the customer can design on a “ballot sheet”.

The promotion really existed on the “Black Star Burger” Moscow web page published since March 6. Similarly, on March 12, a Twitter user @SiberianMan posted an image of an ad promoting cheap food at polling stations.

A day earlier on March 11, another Twitter user @Durevestnik posted a similar image of discounted food promotion targeting Russians in Gusev.

On March 8, a Russian website “Takiye Dela” reported about an option to get physical exams to check for cancer near the polling stations in Moscow. In particular, Moscow voters can test for cancer of the breast, ovaries, and prostate.

In Sverdlovsk Oblast, a social media contest “Golosovach” was announced. Its page on the Russian social media site VKontakte (VK) first posted the rules of the contest on February 15. The contestants need to go to a polling station, find a person with a “Golosovach” photo camera, take a photo, post it on VK, tag friends, and add the hashtag #голосовач96 and city. Then a contestant needs to go to the “Golosovach” web page and vote. The contestants whose images get the most votes can win an Apple gadget, PlayStation, GoPro camera, a bicycle, or other prizes.
 
On March 12, a website that lists different promotions and offers published an invitation to a big concert with Russian celebrities for 18 to 25 year-olds who voted. The official website of the election promotion contained a disclaimer published as a MS Word document at the bottom of the page. It mentioned a limited liability company “Sila Sozidaniya” (transl. Force of Creation) as the organizer of the “youth concert”. When not planning concerts for voter turnout, the company describes its work as “preparation of own real estate for sale”.

Slogan translated from Russian: “Why keep mute, if you have a voice!”; Text: “You made your choice, congratulations! Get a ticket to the concert of the best voices in your country. There are just three steps left: 1. Visit a website www.golosa2018.ru and register a code; 2. Choose the concert with your favorite performers; 3. Get the ticket and come to have fun!” (Source: Probnick.ru)

The State University of Vologda also announced a photo contest for university student groups. The student group whose members all post selfies with the hashtag #ВоГУвыбирает from a polling station the fastest will win a weekend at Y.E.S. — a local sport resort. The school whose students participate in the contest the most, will win a remodel of facilities and new equipment.

On March 6, a Twitter user @Mark__Del posted a screenshot from a messaging app that encourages inhabitants of student dormitories in Petrozavodsk to come to elections. The screenshot suggested that the dormitory whose students participate the most will get money for needs and “wants”. The first place will get 300 thousand rubles ($5,241 USD).

Text translated from Russian: “A contest to raise the turnout at the presidential elections was announced among the students of one of the universities of Petrozavodsk, the Republic of Karelia, living in student dormitories.” (Source: Twitter / @Mark__Del)

A similar contest was announced in Ekaterinburg student dormitories. According to the Navalny team in Ekaterinburg, the student boards of the dormitories have received an order to make students vote. The dormitory with the best turnout results will get a cash prize.

Turnout by Sticks

Some universities decided to use “sticks” instead of carrots to get its students to vote.

On March 5, Navalny’s team in Orenburg reported that the Agrarian University in Orenburg forces students to register their participation in the election on University territory. In case of disobedience, the University will take academic “measures”.

On March 10, a Twitter user @gsl2k10 posted an image of an announcement in a dormitory in Orenburg.

( Source: Twitter/@gsl2k10)

The announcement read:

The turnout of the students living in the dormitory is mandatory! Your future stay in the dormitory depends on your turnout! Voting will take place from 8:00 to 20:00 in the dormitory cafeteria. Plan your ahead to make sure that you can come and vote!

Nevertheless, the image was first published as an evidence before city Duma elections in the city of Rostov-na-Donu in April, 2014, therefore the tweet and other sources that used the image in the context of the elections on March 18, have been spreading disinformation.

On March 8, independent Russian media outlet Meduza reported students in Samara are forced to download a mobile app “Tochka Rosta” that allows the users to check in when attending events. The students “Meduza” talked to, reported threats to take away scholarships of even expulsion from the university. Three students confirmed that the dean’s office asked students to list the students who did not download the app.

Conclusion

Russian citizens were called on to participate in the presidential elections on the streets, in public transport, in food places, shops, hospitals, and universities. Voters can buy discounted food, go to a huge celebrity concert, or test blood for cancer. Multiple universities are throwing social media contests with expensive prizes or threatening to expel students who fail to show up for the elections.

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


*Editor’s Note: This piece was updated on March 15 at 12:45PM EST to reflect that the posters reported in Orenburg were, in fact, from 2014.


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

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