Informal actors came to the Kremlin’s aid…
“Shut Up and Dance”, Black Mirror, Netflix, 2016
“Kompromat”, meaning compromising materials, as a tactic to smear one’s opponents, came into use in Russia in the late 1990s, and back then it was a mix of intercepted phone calls and analytical profiles prepared by the oligarchs’ shadowy security details or the government security services.
In the 2000s and 2010s the tactics of kompromat were widely used against Russian opposition leaders, as well as American and British diplomats. Videos with kompromat were aired on state television channels and posted on the websites of pro-Kremlin media outlets. To take one recent illustrative case, charges of possession of child pornography were brought by the British court authorities against the Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, a critic of the Kremlin living in London. The images were found on Bukovsky’s computer in 2014 during a home search, shortly before he was meant to testify as a witness in the Alexander Litvinenko case. (Litvinenko was, by all indications, poisoned by order of the FSB.) This month, Bukovsky appeared before the Cambridge Crown Court and denied all charges; the trial will resume in January.
But Russian middle classes had already lost trust in the mainstream media and had turned to new media and social networks. The Russian secret services were slow to adapt to the fast-moving world of the Internet. The Kremlin needed a solution outside formal government institutions. Informal actors – a mixture of pro-Kremlin journalists, spin doctors, adventurists and activists from pro-Kremlin youth movements – came to their aid. Soon a many-branched and well-funded empire of websites and online communities was built to promote the Kremlin’s views. This empire needed coordination, and it was mostly coordinated at the level of the presidential administration.
The main elements of this empire were already in place by the late 2000s, and this is what made the social media landscape in Russia so paradoxical during the anti-Putin protests of 2011–12. While the Kremlin’s security services were clearly incapable of controlling social media and preventing them from spreading news about the protests – in December 2011 the FSB still used a fax machine to send a request to the social network Vkontakte, modelled after Facebook, to take down protest groups – the Kremlin’s informal actors were busy spreading kompromat and disinformation about the protests’ leaders.