Since early 2020 we have been working to expose how Russia has weaponized conspiracy theories. The same tools and techniques are still in use and have been very effective. We have explained in the previous post how the underground marketplace is used to produce and spread disinformation. Here will talk about vote and petition manipulation.
Manipulating votes, petitions, and polls on social media and other online platforms can be one of the most effective means to influence public opinion, and this service is also offered in the Russian underground. Siguldin markets itself to be capable of manipulating almost any voting system on the Internet and bypassing security checks such as source IP address, Captcha, and authentication mechanisms in social media, SMS, and email as well as on-site registration among others. Would-be customers are given a free trial of 10 to 20 votes; payment starts on the 50th vote.
Siguldin’s fees depend on how votes are validated. A vote that bypasses IP address, Captcha or other simple authentication costs RUB 1 to RUB 1.5. Voting systems that require authentication via social media will cost RUB 2 to RUB 3, while those requiring detailed online registration cost RUB 3 to RUB 4 For voting systems that require SMS confirmation and more complex authentication methods, the customer is imposed with RUB 5 per vote.
Similar services abound in Russian marketplaces. Jet-s can purportedly manipulate petitions on platforms like change.org. Its prices vary: RUB 60,000 ($1,065) will turn into 10,000 votes or petition signatures, while RUB 150,000 ($2,664) will give customers 25,000. A vying service, Slavavtope, offers more platforms. As its name implies, Weberaser—whose website has an English version—focuses on taking down and removing undesirable (and ironically, fake) content or information from the internet, or removing top results from search engines. Its costs depend on the complexity of the task and available time, which starts from RUB 3,000 ($50) if the customer can read Russian or use a machine translator. Curiously, English-speaking patrons are levied with double the amount.
The aforementioned promotion-as-a-service offerings aren’t the only options available for running a fake news campaign. Russian marketplaces also have do-it-yourself (DIY) kits in the form of software that can perform activities such as automated social media spamming. Running such a tool on a single machine under a user’s control may take some time for it to have a noticeable impact for their campaign.
Nevertheless, if the campaign’s operator has access to a malware-backed botnet on which they can install the software, its effectiveness increases tremendously. And as reported by a Russian multimedia outlet, even mainstream newspapers can apparently play a role. This, however, entails a huge financial investment for the customer. For RUB 15,000 ($266), an article can be put out in a publication of dubious repute or in the newspaper’s classifieds section. Publishing an article without it being marked as an advertorial or paid content has the hefty price tag of as much as RUB 1.5 million ($21,641). Publishing articles with four to six thousand characters on commercial news sites can cost between RUB 300,000 ($5,328) and RUB 550,000 ($9,768)
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