Apostol's Astroturfing Twitter Bots
Thousands of “likes” and postive comments have swept social media with mock-ups of houses set to replace 8,000 “khrushchevki” 5 story apartments in Moscow. Russiangate’s Sofia Savina looks into the Monday to Friday activity and whoprotects Igor Shuvalov's corgi.
“The participants of renovation are very lucky. To move from the older bugger to such new apartments,” “People are being moved from ruins to new homes,” “Now all ‘khrushchevki’ residents will count the days until their forthcoming migration to their new homes.” These are all responses that non-existent Muscovites have reacted to news about the demolition of the buildings on Twitter.
All of the users share several qualities, they have common last names such Smirnov, Petrov, Vasilyev, profile photos that look like a typical Russian guy, an abundance of similar retweets and a minimal number of their own posts. These are just a few signs that a PR company is leading an astroturfing campaign online.
Recently, Russiangate broke a story on how the Moscow mayor's office will purchase accommodation for Russian business magnate Alisher Usmanov’s stepson. The article was commented on by 38 people who supported the renovation program, with half of comments appearing in the morning, while the other half came in the afternoon.
“Who cares about this corruption, we'll never know the truth, the main thing is that people will be given a new comfortable housing!"
Analysis of these twitter-accounts showed that they had common creation dates, modes of operation, themes, and some had even the same spelling errors. Half of them were created in December 2011, 14 accounts in January and March 2012 and the rest in 2014.
Russiangate’s analysis of these twitter-accounts showed that 28 out of 37 profiles are active only on weekdays. They also have a strict regimen from 6.00 to 17.00 or 14.00 to 22.00. No tweets were made outside this schedule.
All of the account share the same history. Their first posts refer to 2012, then they start complaining about the weather and lack of sleep, and jokes about female logic.
The accounts are filled with everyday wisdom: "Life is a race in which everyone aspires to get ahead to cross to the finish line," "Fools learn from their mistakes, smart people, from others’ mistakes, and the wise look at them and slowly drink beer," " A woman is a mystery covered with makeup."
Since Summer 2013, the Smirnovs, Petrovs, and Vasilyevs now publish similar posts such as "Rostekh paid 109 billion rubles in taxes in 2012. This is a third of the federal budget for the 2014 Olympics,” "Kamaz will partner with Rostech RT-Invest," “Tekhpribor enterprise, a part of Rostekh corporation, has changed its CEO."
They posts then have the advertising hashtags #RETC, #Kalashnikov, #Аeroflot, #Minpromtorg, #Manturov (Minister of Industry and Trade – ed.).
After 2014, the fake accounts went "silent." It was only two years later that the bots reappeared using the hashtag #DSIR, used for the IT-conference "Digital Sphere of Industrial Russia" held in Innopolis, Tatarstan. Its general partner was Rostekh, Minpromtorg, Mincomsvyaz and the presidential administration support the forum.
The subject the of tweets (#RETC, # Kalashnikov, # Aeroflot, # Minpromtorg) reveals the owners of the army of "living bots." Every bot tweeted about topics that the PR Firm Apostol Center for Strategic Communications had been put in charge of.
Apostol has been commonly called the “evil empire.” The agency headed by Tina Kandelaki has become famous for its promotion of Russian state interests.
The bots who attacked Russiangate were "born" in 2012, just at the moment when Apostol was re-branding the state corporation Rostekhnologii at a cost of $1.5 million. In the same year, Apostol began working with Aeroflot after receiving a contract for 27.5 million rubles.
A year later, the company signed two more contracts with Rostekh. The first cost 26.7 million rubles and was for "information support of the state corporation in the Russian information field." The second for international PR totaling 95 million rubles.
In the same year, the agency won two contracts with the Ministry of Industry and Trade for "development of the information complex." Their total cost was 61.3 million rubles.
The Kalashnikov concern mentioned by bots when they signed a state contract with Apostol in 2014 for "the provision of branding services" that cost 15 million rubles. Another company "promoted" by the bots was the Radioelectronic Technology concern (RETC) which spent 50 million rubles.
Apostol’s dominance of state auctions ended in December 2015, after Tina Kandelaki left the company. However, Apostol continued to earn income from state contracts.
The DSIR conference in Rostekh was supervised personally by Vasily Brovko, the creator of the Apostol agency. As early as 2013, the head of Rostekh, Sergei Chemezov, appointed Brovko as head of communications for the company. According to the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, Brovko left the Apostol shareholders board only in 2014.
It turns out that for a year he combined two positions, a post in Rostekh as well as working with Apostol as a contractor for the state corporation. Even after Brovko left and sold his shares in the company, he still kept ties to Apostol as the general director of the Apostol became Tina Kandelaki, Brovko's partner and wife.
In the fall of 2016, Brovko was promoted to director for special assignments for Rostech, where he began to supervise the company, including DSIR.
In 2017, a company associated with Apostol was engaged in management of DSIR, the media reported. According to the website for state procurements, contracts for the preparation of the conference were won by the communication group OMG, which includes Allnighters Marketing Communications, who was responsible for the preparation of the conference last year.
Formally OMG is not associated with Apostol, there are no legal ties between them. But there is an indirect evidence of affiliation, namely shared projects.
For instance, on the marketing’s company website it’s written that OMG participated in the project "The Legacy of Tatarstan," which Apostol, led by Kandelaki in 2014, developed the brand of the republic.
In 2015, OMG conducted the launch of the federal sports channel MATCH TV. The general producer of the channel is Tina Kandelaki.
Tina Kandelaki at the presentation of the "Heritage of Tatarstan" brand next to the President of the Republic Rustam Minnikhanov, photo - Allnighters Marketing Communications website
More examples of PR work involving Apostol includes connections to the First Analytical Agency, which cooperates with the Ministry of Industry and Trade. In July 2017, the company signed two contracts with the Ministry for "services to analyze the topic of trade cooperation between Russia and other countries."
A 25% share of the First Analytical Agency is owned by LLC Arkona, which is the founder of LLC New Strategy (the new name of the Apostol). Until June 2016, Kines Kisiitov, a former employee of the Apostoll, was the general director of the First Analytical Agency. Kisiitov has been documented before as running an Internet trolls division.
In November 2016, Apostol bots changed dramatically. They began to "protect" Igor Shuvalov, the First Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation. Their duties included spreading positive news about the deputy premier and reply to non-positive tweets on his official twitter account.
"You, cockerel with cockish manners, will have hard times in prison, not Shuvalov," - writes one bot-defender.
The defenders of Igor Shuvalov became more active in the fall of 2016, after investigations into Shuvalov’s property were published showing that he had a 680 million ruble apartment in the center of Moscow, a 40 million ruble car and a $ 50 million private plane, which apparently upset the vice-deputy. The Apostol bots continued to defend Shuvalov until June 2017.
The head of Rostekh Sergei Chemezov, Igor Shuvalov and Tina Kandelaki at SPIEF-2014, photo - Live journal of Tina Kandelaki
In the same month, fake accounts began to leave positive comments concerning the renovation, as well as for the the portal Russia.Travel, the Business Success award and State Duma Deputy Alexander Prokopiev.
Now the bots have a few similar patterns. First, they all follow the account of the Moscow Building Complex, the entity handling the renovation.
Secondly, they all follow and retweet the national tourist portal Russia.Travel. This project was created by the Federal Agency for Tourism and the Ministry of Culture.
Third, the bots all follow and retweet everything from the page of the national award Business Success. The chairman of the board of trustees of this award is Igor Shuvalov, who is highly touted by the “live bots”. The Board of Trustees includes the Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov.
The creator of the Business Success award is the public organization of entrepreneurs Opora Rossii. It includes another Apostol client Alexander Prokopiev, a two time deputy of the State Duma from the party United Russia. All of the bots like retweet and share Prokopiev's activities on Twitter.
A former employee of the Apostol communication agency confirmed to Russiangate the existence of the "live bots" . At his request, we are not publishing his name.
"There really was a network of fake accounts in Apostol. Oleg Berkovich was in charge of this matter. And when the company collapsed, the owners of the accounts went to work in a new communication agency, which is now supporting the renovation, as well as the PR of some deputies," the source told.
The above mentioned Oleg Berkovich is one of the founders of Apostol. According to the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, Berkovich is the founder of two companies, CIMES LLC (Center for the Study of Mass Electronic Consciousness) and LLC Strategic Research Agency.
Another former employee Apostol described how the "live bots" were organized. According to him, the comments on social networks where the task of the Social Media department. Five people managed all of the Twitter accounts.
After that, the analytical department of Apostol monitored all positive posts and comments about their clients, for example, Rostekh. According to a former employee of the company, "positive posts about Apostol’s clients were purchased from popular bloggers."
The second source also does not exclude that after the crisis in Apostol, the SMM-department could have been "transferred" to an affiliated company.
The so-called "Sobyanin bots" are not limited to former employees of Apostol. As early as in February 2016, Leonid Volkov, an employee of the Anti-Corruption Fund, wrote about the project "Engine" existing on budgetary money. Participants of the youth movement were asked to write posts and make reports about the activities of the mayor's office to get points. And in February 2017, the blog Lapshesnimalochnaya reported that the Moscow City administration was actively using fake accounts on Twitter to promote their ideas. This information "war" was conducted by the company Pietet, assured the interlocutor of Lapshesnimalochnaya. The beneficiaries of this company could not be verified.