Authors: Zharkynay Adilkhan, Laura Isabekova
Mentors: Aizada Toma, Asel Shabdanova
Asan (not his real name) worked in one of the «handling the negativity departments» of the capital. In early 2010, he was invited for an interview to the company, which created a very unusual department called the «Influence Department».
There were 30 of us in the Department. The work was not hard: each agent had to create 50 fake accounts on social media: VKontakte, Facebook. Instagram and even Odnoklassniki. After that, a biography was written for each account, photos were selected in order to give the impression of a real person.
Asan says that based on the biography and the account’s image, the writing style for comments and a target audience was determined. For example, the writing style of a married woman of 45+ years old differs from that of a student.
There were government agencies and influential officials among their customers, who needed complimentary comments or posts.
«There is a reasonable human way of interaction between officials and people: to recognize the mistake, find the guilty and punish them. After that, to report everything to people: we made mistakes, but we are getting better. However, this way, as a rule, is not used here. Therefore, they choose another option: they turn to us, agents for handling the negativity in social media,» Asan says.
All Professions Are Needed
In Kazakhstan, there is a profession that does not exist anywhere else. Journalists and media experts call them «nurbots». These people manage fake accounts to create a positive image of a person or government agency.
Note. «Nurbots»: the term is used only in Kazakhstan. It consists of the «Nur» prefix (on behalf of the first President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev) and the word «bot» (short for robot). «Nurbots» are special programs that automatically and/or by a given schedule perform any actions via interfaces designed for people.
These are fake accounts created by hired employees. They write propaganda comments in favour of government policy and ideology.
The main task of such bots is to shift the focus from the main topic, divert the discussion in the other direction, manipulation, and influence on public opinion in the customers’ interests.
The range of skills a «Nurbots» must have is impressive. Asan says that during the training, psychologists, specialists in dialectics and debate were working with them.
«In a way, this is a creative job, and a random person cannot be hired for such work. An «agent» must not only write competently and creatively, but also to be a psychologist. Otherwise, he is unlikely to keep this job,» says our hero.
How Others Do It?
Bots as the political tool are used not only in Kazakhstan. For example, in Russia, the analogue of «nurbots» exists – «kremlebots»; in the USA, the bots were actively used during the elections.
«Unfortunately, the online ecosystem is constantly threatened by malicious automated accounts, recently deemed responsible for tampering with online discussions about major political elections in western countries, including the 2016 US presidential elections, and the UK Brexit referendum,» writes the American media«Communications Physics».
How Much Is the Opinion?
Asan says that the revenue of the company where he worked was 1-2 million tenge ($2,400-4,800) per month. For one comment, the customer paid 500-1000 tenge or $1.2-2.4. On average, the «nurbot» could process 50 to 70 comments per day.
According to Asan, in addition to private bot farms, special departments named as SMM or PR departments were created under each quasi-state corporation, akimat and ministry, although the «agents» working there know nothing about SMM or PR. That is, earlier, the officials ordered complimentary comments to bot farms, but now, they opened similar departments inside the structures.
The system of relations between the «nurbot» and the customer is quite simple: the two parties negotiate the request, the amount to pay, and then, the argumentative base is developed. That is, the answers to the frequently asked questions are being outlined. «Agents», as they are also called, present the same idea every time differently: they cannot comment in the same way. «Nurbot» needs to give the impression of a real person.
Nurbot’s task is not to argue with others, because they already have a position. They write only for those who will read these comments later.
For example, let us analyse the Instagram account of the akim of Nur-Sultan city Altai Kulginov.
There are bots in this account, albeit in small numbers. They are not used to promote or respond to negativity, they just add positive comments to posts. If you look over the last few posts, you can find suspicious comments there.
If we analyse the accounts of these users, we will not see a single publication and a minimum (or absence) of personal data.
Asan considers it a shame to work as a «nurbot»; if you do not support the point of view that you need to defend, it is very difficult to do this work.
You constantly are compromising, because you have to defend some point of view for money, and if you defend some idea, you have to do it for free. Then, as it turns out, you sell your opinion. Therefore, you feel dishonest all the time.
Who Is Paying For the Banquet?
When asked why high-ranking officials need complimentary comments, Asan answered, «There is a budget, and it needs to be spent».
The founder of Protenge.kz media and experienced journalist Jamilya Maricheva highlights that ‘nurbots’ are openly participating in public procurement.
«For example, in Rudny, in the technical assignment for 1.3 million tenge ($3,000), officials wrote, «Creating four fake accounts for commenting,» she says.
Maricheva believes that it is important to create an environment of intolerance to such a phenomenon as fake accounts, for at least one simple reason: so as not to spend budget funds on something that does not exist in real world.
Media lawyer Gulmira Birzhanova notes that the state causes great damage to its reputation by financing such projects.
What Can Be Done?
Birzhanova assessed the situation from the legal point of view. According to her, the «nurbots» can be brought to justice only for copyright infringement.
«The theft of other people’s photographs happens often; they can be brought to justice for violation of the right to protect the private materials. However, as a rule, the ‘nurbots’ steal photos of Yakut models or other ethnic groups similar to us. These photos’ owners, of course, will not be involved in the investigation,» she said.
In theory, a «nurbot» can be held accountable in case of spreading slanderous information or insulting someone.
On a personal note: if you come across a comment from a bot, you can complain about it by the special functions of Instagram and Facebook, because most social media are actively countering fake accounts, and it is highly probable that this bot will be blocked after a check.
To learn more about bots, take our quiz.