March 2024

Social media monitoring on the eve of the presidential elections in Russia

More than 100 thousand Russian public organizations are involved in election advertising. These mainly include schools, kindergartens, and local administrations. Public sector employees are directly campaigning to vote for Putin. At the same time, the presidential elections are not the most important topic on the agenda of state media. Here is a data-driven review of the Russian pre-elections campaign on social media.

Key takeaways:

  • At least 105 thousand public organizations are involved in election advertising. These are mainly schools, kindergartens and local administrations, as well as village councils, libraries, cultural centers and other institutions. Since the beginning of the year, they have made 365,000 posts about the election. The Kremlin needs this to achieve a record turnout of 75-80%.
  • Public sector employees are directly campaigning to vote for Putin. A total of 3.5 thousand state-dependent Russians are involved in campaigning. Every third of their posts is dedicated to the incumbent president. These are primarily heads and employees of administrations, deputies, teachers and school principals. They published 4.5 thousand texts about Putin with the #ZaPresidenta hashtag (“for the president”) alone.
  • The administrative resource is also used to advertise the remote electronic voting system. More than 37 thousand state organizations and budgetary employees are advertising online voting. Since the beginning of the year, they have published 72.3 thousand posts about online voting.
  • Almost 75% of posts about the elections in the VK are written based on guidelines issued by the Russian authorities. They differ by one or two words. These guidelines are developed by local authorities and supervised by the ‘Dialog’ organization.
  • The presidential elections are by no means the most important topic on the agenda of the state media. Since the beginning of the year, they have published 1.7 thousand news items about Boris Nadezhdin's disqualification and the registration of other candidates, which is not one of the top ten popular topics. The state media write much more often about Putin's pre-election activities.
  • Independent media pay more attention to the elections. They wrote more texts about the elections than about Navalny's funeral and the shelling of Ukraine.
  • State media write about Putin more often than about other candidates. Texts about elections mention the incumbent president three times more frequently than other candidates. Even Boris Nadezhdin, who is not registered, is mentioned more often. The least publicized candidate is Nikolai Kharitonov from the CPRF.
  • Putin is less engaged in the current election campaign than he was in the last one. Since the beginning of the year, he has made only 11 trips, all within the country. Candidate No. 2, Vladislav Davankov, managed to visit 27 regions.
  • Campaign events with Putin's participation are centered on war and the military-industrial complex. The president also meets the regional governors less often. In total, the president has participated in 890 events since the beginning of 2023. In the last three months before the elections, their number and topics have not changed.
  • 15% of posts in VK about the elections mentioning the president are positive. This is the highest indicator among the competitors. Boris Nadezhdin gets the most negative coverage.
  • Vladislav Davankov is the most pacifist candidate. The words most frequently featured in his posts on his Telegram channel and the channel of his party are peace, peaceful and free. Leonid Slutsky, on the other hand, is viewed by the Kremlin as the most reliable. He often writes about war, Ukraine and confrontation with the West.

Teachers and mayors as vehicles of Putin's campaign

Two weeks before the election, while thousands of Russians were standing in line to bid farewell to Alexei Navalny at the cemetery, Putin delivered a speech. The Kremlin planned to make his address to the parliament a nation-wide event: the address was broadcast in cinemas in 20 Russian cities, and Peskov called the speech the president's election program.

Over several days, state-controlled organizations (town halls, village councils, culture centers, and hospitals) in different regions of Russia published thousands of posts advertising Putin's address.

In total, according to our calculations, 105 thousand state organizations, primarily schools, kindergartens, and local administrations, took part in various election campaigns in the run-up to the election. Since the beginning of the year, they have published 365 thousand posts. This is almost half of all the posts on the election published by all users in the Vkontakte social network (the biggest social media platform in Russia with 90 million monthly users).

On average, 654 users follow each public page of government institutions, and the largest ones – like the Government of Russia and St. Petersburg, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Hermitage, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Duma – are followed by hundreds of thousands of people. The total audience of these public pages is 68.3 million users (without adjusting for intersections).

At the same time, every third post about the election on the pages of VK users is devoted to Putin's nomination. They were written by lawmakers and people employed in administrations, schools, hospitals and other government organizations. This is almost a quarter of all users with a specified place of work who wrote about the election.

The Kremlin needs such unsophisticated campaigning to increase turnout. Meduza previously pointed out that Putin wants to win with a record turnout of 70-80%, citing sources in the administration's political bloc, while RBC and Kommersant reported that in addition to a 70% turnout, the regions have been instructed to ensure that more than 75% of the vote goes to Putin.

The VK is used as the main agitation platform. As of September 2022, all government agencies are required to have their own page in this social network. This also applies to educational institutions - more than half of all Russian schools, according to our data, by the spring of 2022, have created VK blogs.

E-voting is a sure bet

The Kremlin first tested e-voting in the September 2019 municipal elections. At that time, the turnout at Moscow's "electronic" polling stations exceeded 92%, while the overall turnout was 22%.

Two years later, e-voting was used in the Moscow City Duma elections. This time electronic voting overturned the election results: the opposition, which was winning once the votes were counted at the polling stations, lost to United Russia once e-votes were processed. Experts estimated the scope of falsification at about a quarter of a million votes. The ensuing protests and criticism of e-voting, including those voiced by the parliamentary parties, did not prevent the digitalization of the elections.

The Kremlin considered the experience a success. On December 27, 2023, 29 regions with more than a third of potential voters were announced to be connected to the remote electronic voting system.

Each region developed its own guidelines with instructions on how to publish posts advertising e-voting and public organizations publish hundreds of such advertisements in public forums. In total, more than 37 thousand state organizations and public sector employees participate in the campaign to vote remotely. Since the beginning of the year, they have published 72.3 thousand posts about online voting.

"Remote voting guarantees anonymity," "The electronic voting system has proven its reliability," "Electronic voting brings economically active men back to the polls" — such headlines in pro-government media are intended to bolster the reputation of the electronic voting system, yet doubts about its transparency continue to be expressed by experts, as well as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) represented in parliament. State Duma deputy Sergey Obukhov, in a meeting with representatives of the Central Election Commission, compared the electoral process in Russia to an online casino, which "with the introduction of electronic voting becomes impossible to verify and, as appeal practices have shown, there’s even no one to catch red-handed."

Political scientist and fellow at the Andrew Gagarin Center for the Study of Civil Society and Human Rights Alexei Gilev explains that e-voting can help the Kremlin gain more control not only over turnout, but also over the outcome of the election: "Even if it is not possible to actually control voting, workers may fear that [exactly how they vote] is being controlled. In that case, they will [definitely] vote for Putin.

Copy and paste

Almost 75% of all posts about the elections in VK are identical, i.e. they differ from each other by one or two words. "💪 Every soldier considers it their duty to protect the country. 🇷🇺 And every Russian has the right to choose what it will become in the future" — for example, this is how a text begins, which was literally reprinted by 654 public pages of educational institutions in the Chelyabinsk region. Most likely, such posts are written based on guidelines developed by the local authorities.

Dialog Regions, the main supervisor of social networks in the Presidential Administration, is responsible for the development of these guidelines. As of 2022, according to an investigation by Meduza, Important Stories and The Bell, Dialog employed more than 2.5 thousand people, and by 2024 it was planned to allocate about 24 billion rubles from the budget of the Ministry of Digital Development for its activities.

According to the guidelines for school blogs, as journalists found out, educational institutions are obliged to post news about presidential and government decisions, the work of the local governor, Russia's successes in science and sports, and "patriotic events." These activities violate two federal laws at once: "On Education in the Russian Federation" and "On Basic Guarantees of Voting Rights...".

“The task of the Dialog is to train local staff to work in social networks. And what this training is worth you can see on social media. Their posts are full of officialese and bullspeak”, says an anonymous political consultant. “Although VK has become the main platform, Dialog also pays attention to OK (odnoklassniki.ru, “classmates”) and WhatsApp. Through their bot profiles, they try to access neighborhood chat rooms and school committees. But since it all looks like copy paste, this activity produces the opposite effect.”

Elections are not the top story for state media

A month before the presidential election, Vladimir Putin gave an interview to American journalist Tucker Carlson. Russian propaganda heralded its release as an event of international importance.

According to monitoring by the Golos group, Putin's interview was three times more important to Russian TV channels than the upcoming elections. And two weeks before the vote, TV channels further reduced the already small share of the electoral agenda in their broadcasting schedules. Golos considers this to be a sign of the election campaign "drying up," which should make potential protest voters reluctant to participate, while the public sector workers will come to the polls under pressure.

An analysis of the federal and regional Internet media also suggests that elections are being ignored. Sports matches, the situation at the front, weather forecasts, as well as Putin's interviews, meetings and statements — pro-Kremlin media wrote about these topics more often than about the upcoming presidential election.

Since the beginning of the year, they have published only 1.7 thousand news items about Nadezhdin's disqualification and the registration of other candidates. This issue is not among the ten most popular ones ranking 20th in the entire agenda. The more important issues for the pro-government media include Ukraine (2.1 thousand posts), movie news (2.3 thousand) and traffic accidents (3.1 thousand).

Independent media are much more interested in the elections. Since the beginning of the year, they have published almost a thousand news items about voting and candidate registration — more than about Navalny's funeral or the shelling of Ukraine.

What is Putin doing?

The state media gave Vladimir Putin a special place on the agenda in election publications. They published more than 175 news items about the collection of signatures in support of the self-nominated candidate and his registration for the election. No other candidate deserved such attention, with the exception of Boris Nadezhdin: "defective" signatures in support of his nomination became one of the primary election topics.

But in real life, Putin is hardly that active. During the current election campaign, he has made only 11 trips. For comparison: by the beginning of March, Vladislav Davankov had managed to visit 27 regions.

Now, Putin is conducting his fifth election campaign. Throughout his presidency, as indicated by his schedule, Putin has started to travel less frequently both abroad and within the regions. The number of the president's work trips has drastically decreased since the beginning of the pandemic and has not yet returned to the levels of 2018-2019. However, even the "pre-Covid" Putin was far less mobile than Dmitry Medvedev, who held the presidential office from 2008 to 2012.

On December 7th, the Federation Council set the election date. Two weeks later, the election campaign was started by the LDPR candidate Leonid Slutsky — on December 19th, at the party congress, he announced his plans to visit at least 30 regions of Russia. Soon, Vladislav Davankov, nominated by "New People", joined him — on December 29th, he went to Smolensk, where he met with entrepreneurs.

Putin's election campaign, despite his earlier announcement of intention to run compared to his competitors, has not been reflected in his schedule. The number of trips, meetings, and their themes remained unchanged on the eve of the elections.

Since the beginning of 2023, Putin has participated in 890 events. In October, he made his first foreign trip of the year to Kyrgyzstan. A few days later, he attended the "One Belt, One Road" forum in China. This was the president's most active month — then he participated in 121 events.

In addition to meetings with heads of state, Putin allocates time for interactions with military personnel and awarding participants of the "SVO" with medals. Even meetings with regional heads have become less frequent. Since the beginning of the year, the president has managed to visit a military hospital and open the "Everything for Victory!" forum.

No one is interested in Putin’s competitors

Three candidates, Nikolai Kharitonov of the CPRF, Leonid Slutsky of the LDPR, and Vladislav Davankov of the New People, will be Putin's rivals in the election. However, there is no real competition to speak of: the candidates were unable to give a definitive answer to journalists' questions about whether they intended to win the election.

Neither the politicians themselves nor the state media take Putin's rivals seriously. Even Boris Nadezhdin, who was not allowed to register for the election, is much more frequently covered by both state and independent media. The independent media also paid much attention to the failed presidential campaign of the first anti-war candidate Ekaterina Duntsova (the state media virtually ignored this subject).

Kharitonov is the least visible candidate in the Russian media. The media published the least amount of news about him, and the candidate's channel has no more than seven thousand subscribers. For comparison, Davankov's audience on Telegram is 174,000 users, and Slutsky's is 182,000.

As expected, the state media pay much more attention to the incumbent president. Texts about the election mention Putin three times more frequently.

Candidate guidelines

But despite the fact that no one expects real competition from the election, the Kremlin is trying to increase the interest of Russians by creating "suspense" around the second place. According to Meduza's sources in the Presidential Administration, the struggle between Davankov, Slutsky, and Kharitonov can be "quite real" as it is necessary to raise turnout.

Right now, Vladislav Davankov is "candidate No. 2," according to a poll by the pro-Kremlin VCIOM.

Perhaps that's why the number of negative posts about Davankov in VK is much higher than about other candidates. The same cannot be said about his rival Leonid Slutsky, who has launched a large-scale PR campaign with almost 100,000 posts mentioning the candidate.

But Vladimir Putin has the most positive reputation in VK, as expected. #StrongPresidentStrongCountry — in posts with this hashtag, dozens of users from the Novosibirsk region reported their participation in collecting signatures to support Putin's nomination. They highlight the president's leadership qualities, his patriotism, and authority, promising to vote for Putin in the elections. Another hashtag — #ForThePresident — gained more than 4,500 posts. However, almost all the authors of thousands of praise posts are public sector officials dependent on the government.

Boris Nadezhdin, who was disqualified from the elections, leads by the share of negative posts. He managed to collect more than 150,000 signatures in support of his nomination and became the only candidate who openly condemned the war in Ukraine. The CEC refused to register Nadezhdin, citing 15% defective signatures.

Nadezhdin is the only candidate whose number of negative publications exceeds the number of positive ones. He is called a traitor to his homeland, a failed politician and accused of stealing donations.

War and Peace on candidates' social media

Slutsky's TG-channel reported that the program of LDPR's leader integrated the main points from Putin's address to parliament, which Putin used as a way to voice his election program. Sardana Avksentyeva, a State Duma member from New People, also noted that "much in the address agrees with the initiatives" of Davankov.

But do the candidates have anything to offer other than their joint support for the incumbent president? Despite the sluggish media coverage of their programs, each competitor has a number of issues and proposals that are important to them.

Slutsky beats other candidates in terms of the number of bills he introduced into the parliament. Not by coincidence, as he himself testified, he chose February 21, the "date of recognition of the independence of the DNR and LNR" to present his platform. Slutsky declared the need for the swift completion of the "Special military operation" and switching Ukrainian called on the AFU to surrender.

Leonid Slutsky is the greatest war-monger of all candidates: in his personal and party channels there are almost 300 references to the war, victory and Ukraine. Confrontation with the West and the United States is also a key issue for the candidate.

The war in Ukraine is the main issue in Slutsky's and LDPR's channels. The party is also actively posting about benefits for small and local businesses, as well as offering payments for students and large families. Other notable initiatives include a stricter law on foreign agents and "confiscation of property from traitors to the motherland."

Vladislav Davankov is the greatest pacifist of all the competitors. The top words Davankov uses are peace, peaceful and free. He offers voters a "program of peaceful development." The main initiative most often mentioned by the media is the reform of the housing and utilities sector and the fight against utilities failures. The candidate is also known for his proposal to return direct elections of mayors, to solve the problem of "migrant rampages" and to punish repeated reporting of suspicious behavior.

Issues covered by the candidates

Number of words from TG-channel posts of candidates and their parties

Davankov
Slutsky
Kharitonov
Source: TG-channels of candidates and their parties

Methodology

Using an API, we extracted all posts from VK (a Russian social media platform) containing key phrases (presidential elections, Boris Nadezhdin, electronic voting, candidate nomination, etc.) from the beginning of 2024 to the 11th of March. We then cleaned the dataset using regular expressions. Using the API again, we added information about the authors of the posts to the dataset (place of work, public page name, geography, etc.). We ended up with 839,862 posts about the elections.

To identify how many posts were written by public sector employees, we filtered the posts by government organizations and civil servants based on the names of the public pages (for example, by including the word "MBOU") and by position or place of work (for example, by including the phrase "school director").

To understand the image of the presidential candidates, we evaluated the sentiment of each post that mentioned one of the candidates. We used this model for sentiment analysis. To identify copy-pasted content, we represented each post as a sequence of numbers ("embeddings") using a pretrained machine learning model — this is a standard step in automatic text analysis.

Using the obtained text representations, we constructed a table (matrix) of post similarities, using a metric known as "cosine similarity". Additionally, we used the clustering algorithm linkage, which forms groups of texts based on similarity. For a cluster to be formed, it had to include no fewer than three posts. Using the API of Telegram messenger, we extracted posts from popular channels of federal pro-government media, regional media, independent media, military correspondents, politicians, parties, and presidential candidates since the beginning of 2024. We obtained 318,522 posts.

To understand the importance of the presidential election in the agenda of pro-government media, we used the Bertopic algorithm to identify the themes of the posts. We then re-clustered the texts grouped by the model into the election theme using Bertopic again to see what the media writes about in the context of the elections.

To determine how actively the media writes about each candidate, we filtered posts about the elections (7,731 posts) using keywords and regular expressions, and counted mentions of each candidate.

Using posts from the personal channels of the candidates and their parties, we tokenized and lemmatized the texts. In these texts, we counted how often each word appeared to understand what the candidates wrote about.

We downloaded all the trips of the presidents from 2000 from the Kremlin.ru website. Then, we downloaded all of Vladimir Putin's meetings for 2024 and manually classified them by themes.