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Bots, coercion and low quality: how Russia is trying to replace services that have left its market

Shortly after the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the Russian authorities began a massive blocking of foreign social networks and actively engaged in import substitution, reports with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

News about Russian analogues regularly appear in the media, and users are forcibly driven to the forgotten Rutube, as if to pro-government rallies in Russian cities.

On the afternoon of March 14, Internet marketer Alexander Zobov announced on his VKontakte page that Instagram was completely blocked in Russia, but an alternative had already been created - the service “Rossgram', which he co-founded.

Russia at that time was already waging a full-scale war in Ukraine, the State Duma introduced criminal liability for fakes about a “special military operation” and administrative liability for discrediting the Russian army, Roskomnadzor managed to block dozens of Russian and foreign media and the main social networks – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Blocking of websites and social networks, as well as restrictions by Western companies, actually brought down the Russian IT infrastructure. Bloggers have lost advertising revenue, small and medium-sized businesses - new customers, and Russians - sources of information. Russian state-owned companies and casual entrepreneurs set about creating their own analogues of Western social networks and services.

“Me, my partner Kirill Filimonov and a group of our developers were already prepared in advance for this outcome of events and decided not to miss the opportunity to create a Russian analogue of the social network popular and beloved by our compatriots,” Zobov wrote on March 14.

Then no one paid attention to this post about the new Russian service. But two days later, the story about Rossgram and little-known entrepreneurs from St. Petersburg was picked up by the media - among the first to write about this was the Russian state television channel RT. In March, several articles about “Rossgram” were published by state news agencies – TASS and RIA Novosti.

On the subject: The Russians stole tractors worth $5 million from Ukraine, but they cannot use them: the owner remotely blocked the equipment

The fact that the news about the new service went unnoticed on the first day is simply explained - Zobov and Filimonov have a small audience in social networks and they were not known in IT circles.

Both creators of the “Russian Instagram” are registered on real Instagram, but even before the application was blocked in Russia, they did not use it very actively. On March 16, when the media wrote about the launch of Rossgram, Zobov had 47 subscribers in his account, Filimonov with the patriotic nickname kirillrussialand (literally - Kirill Russia land) - 60. “I love my country, Motherland, Great Russia!” Filimonov wrote in his profile. Soon he replaced this phrase with a link to the Rossgram website.

Little was known about what Zobov and Filimonov had done before. The only fact from the biography of Zobov, replicated by the media, is studying on the same course with the founder of VKontakte and Telegram Pavel Durov. Zobov is also a graduate of the philological faculty of St. Petersburg State University.

The fact that the media are hooked on this particular story does not please Zobov himself. “They twist the facts as they want,” Zobov says disappointedly about journalists. - Now everyone is starting to refute this, that I did not study at the philological faculty with Durov. That's funny. Even this cannot be verified. Go to Philology. Yes, I studied. But this does not mean that we are personally acquainted with him, we held hands.”

Zobov, speaking about his professional experience, recalls that 20 years ago he created and promoted websites, and then went into marketing. In his resume on hh.ru, Zobov calls himself a marketing director and expects a salary of 160 rubles.

His partner Kirill Filimonov is an entrepreneur, he has a network of football schools in St. Petersburg. For this project, Zobov did an advertisement last year - that's how they met.

In April 2022, Filimonov became the owner of IT History LLC, registered in St. Petersburg, follows from the SPARK-Interfax database. It is in this legal entity that the creators of Rossgram hire employees. In total, the company already employs about 50 people, 14 of them are developers, six are PR specialists.

PR ahead of launch

In the AppStore and Google Play, the application was supposed to appear at the end of March. In April, it became clear that the launch was being delayed. Everything that appeared on Google Play is fake, you don’t need to download them, the founders of Rossgram warned.

“Starting a project, any, from scratch is a colossal job. We are a team that works hard for you! We understand that we want magic ... We are magicians, but not that much. First of all, we are realists! Creating a social network from scratch is a big, extraordinary task,” such a post appeared on the Rossgram telegram channel on April 8.

At the end of April, in the not yet created Rossgram, they began to book nicknames. Athletes, a travel blogger and several other famous people, including singer Olga Buzova, agreed to promote the project. At the pre-registration, the company managed to collect 650 thousand users. By launch, they plan to reach a million “with the help of top bloggers.” Zobov said that the launch was postponed to mid-summer, but he did not name the exact date. Thus, so far, Rossgram’s success looks poor: there is no application yet, on the site there are only promises and an invitation to buy a nickname. It is still difficult to talk about the quality of the social network or analyze its prospects.

Kirill Filimonov was the first to invest in Rossgram, but both partners refused to talk about the amount in question. For support, they turned to the Internet Initiatives Development Fund (IIDF), Zobov said. IIDF is a fund for IT start-ups, it was created in 2013 by the government Agency for Strategic Initiatives. In the IIDF itself, they said that the fund is not negotiating cooperation with Rossgram, there is no talk of entering the company's capital.

An employee of a near-state company that is engaged in PR for regional leaders throughout Russia, said that employees of the company began to register with Rossgram immediately after blocking Instagram and the first news about the appearance of its “domestic alternative”.

“Rossgram” is a private initiative, despite the name,” Kirill Filimonov comments on cooperation with state-owned companies. “But we are ready to consider proposals from state structures as well.”

How Rossgram plans to negotiate with the authorities and whether they will delete posts with the word “war”, Zobov spoke about moderation: “Naturally, we will have to do this so that we are not recognized as an extremist organization. Naturally, there will be moderation. At first, there will be automatic moderation by keywords, and then - human moderation. Now we are developing this technique.”

On March 21, a Russian court recognized the activities of the American corporation Meta (it owns Facebook and Instagram) as extremist. Before that, both social networks were blocked. Since the beginning of March, the coverage of the Russian audience of Instagram has fallen by 62,5%.
In April, the creators of "Rossgram" began to sell nicknames in an application that has not yet been created - from 10 thousand rubles.

Protracted forced transition to Rutube

On April 18, video blogger Syenduk with 7,2 million YouTube subscribers drew attention to the comments under the last video in his channel: almost at the same time, several users began to call on Syenduk to create a channel on Rutube as soon as possible. Bots,” Syenduk confidently concluded on Twitter.

Photo: Shutterstock

This conclusion is logical. All the comments left by the bots are usually very similar: under the video of Syenduk, users write that they and their friends have long since switched to Rutube and point out the disadvantages of YouTube (monetization ban for Russians, risk of blocking).

“And why are you still not on rutube (you make cool videos.” “I love your videos, but I’ve been switching to rutube for the last month. Maybe you’ll start a channel there?” “Many of my friends basically stop sitting on YouTube! it's coming soon!! why haven't you started posting videos on rutube?" who wrote these comments are empty accounts.

Syenduk reacted angrily to the campaign involving bots. “Gazprom, people actively used your garbage platform only at the end of the XNUMXs to upload pirated anime translations there. Today there is not even that. For all the time, RuTube has not been able to swing, and now it will not be able to, even if YouTube is blocked. RuTube is a failed service from the start, it’s a shawarma stall with an inverted McDonald’s logo, a ridiculous copy of a more successful project, where even the name itself betrays its essence,” wrote Syenduk.

The example of Rutube shows that the authorities were trying to carry out import substitution on the Internet long before the war. But these attempts were not very successful, despite billions in fines for Western companies, courts and constant threats of blocking.

Rutube was created by Oryol entrepreneurs in 2006. Two years later, they made a successful deal by selling the video platform to the Gazprom-Media holding for $15 million, so Rutube has always been considered a state project (today 77,6% of Gazprom-Media's shares are owned by Gazprombank). Gazprom-Media has quite a lot of assets: these are the largest TV channels and radio stations, video services and online media (among them are TNT, NTV, Avtoradio, Premier).

In 2016, the video service was merged with the Pladform platform (owned by Ruform LLC). At the end of 2020, GPM again became the sole owner of Rutube, having bought out 50% of Ruform.

The former head of Roskomnadzor, Zharov, has been in charge of the Gazprom-Media holding for the second year. Since 2021, Rutube has changed its CEO twice. In March of this year, Alexander Moiseev, Zharov's deputy at Gazprom-Media, became the head of the service.

For a long time, Gazprom-Media tried to attract an audience to Rutube through popular projects like the content of the TNT channel, which belongs to Gazprom-Media - TNT projects were presented only in Rutube. In 2018, GPM stopped using Rutube as the main platform - the company began publishing the premieres of its projects in Premier. But then Gazprom gave up: for example, the popular show Dances, launched in August 2014, began to be posted on YouTube a year ago.

The audience in Rutube is not going to for several reasons. Most often, hosting is criticized for the lack of a view counter under the video - because of this, advertisers (and therefore bloggers) do not go to Rutube as well. And the obvious disadvantage of Rutube is that it is unlikely that an international audience will come there in the amount in which it exists in YouTube.
“Bloggers are interested in going to these sites when there are advertisers. There are no advertisers on these sites, there is no way to make money on these sites, ”says Vasily Derbenev, the author of the TikTok channel about the pug Leonid (1,2 million subscribers on TikTok). He calls Rutube and other Russian analogues of Western social networks “low-quality products”. “It's just all funny, very funny,” concludes Derbenev.

The fact that there are no viewers in Rutube is also confirmed by blogger producers. In April, the creative producer of YouTube projects, Svetlana Gulyaeva, said that she had experimented with Rutube. “We uploaded the video, approved it for a day (rutube moderators approved it for publication), in three days we had nine views there,” Gulyaeva said on Instagram.

Rutube does not suit a part of the audience because of the so-called “pre-moderation” (or censorship), which not everyone can go through. In 2021, an Open Media correspondent tried to upload a film by politician Alexei Navalny about the palace of President Vladimir Putin to Rutube, but Rutube rejected the video. It's not about copyright - another video of Navalny about his poisoning was uploaded to Rutube.

The same person from a near-state company that does public relations for regional leaders across Russia said that Rutube had set up a fast moderation process for the company.

The authorities oblige government agencies to move to Rutube. In early April, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science sent out a letter to universities demanding that all content from YouTube be transferred to the Russian platforms VK Video and Rutube by April 4.

This large-scale transition to Rutube was started back in 2021. State universities cannot but obey: in April, an account of the Siberian Federal University appeared in Rutube - it now has 12 subscriptions (and about a thousand on YouTube).

Even before the order of the Ministry of Education and Science, the channel was created by the Ural Federal University (8 subscribers gathered there in a month), but continued to lead the more popular one on YouTube (with 15 thousand subscribers).

Rutube is being promoted by the authorities as an alternative to the American video hosting, which they threaten to block.

Roskomnadzor has been scaring YouTube with blocking for a long time. In 2021, the court in Moscow will regularly fined for billions of rubles by Google, which owns YouTube. In April, Roskomnadzor said that YouTube was playing a leading role in the “information war unleashed by Western countries against Russia.”

An attempt to revive Rutube reminded the former head of the service, Yuri Degtyarev, the film “Pet Cemetery”. “There, according to the plot, a beloved cat dies, they bury it. She returns in some kind of crooked form, they understand that something is wrong with her, and they kill her, ”Degtyarev said last year.

The Rutube audience is growing, judging by the data voiced by Gazprom-Media, in December 2021 the monthly audience of the service almost quadrupled to 14,2 million people. And even if you believe the company's statistics, the Russian audience of YouTube is still much higher - in January of this year, the number of Russian users exceeded 89 million people, Mediascope calculated. The company does not publish statistics on Rutube - these measurements are now closed.

Political views of bloggers from Yappy

Under Zharov, Gazprom-Media launched another social network, which is similar in design to the Chinese TikTok. The social network “to start a blogging career” was called Yappy. It was created on the basis of the “I'm a good fellow” mobile application, which Gazprom-Media acquired at the end of 2020.

The face of Yappy was made by actress Anna Khilkevich, who for a long time played one of the main roles in the series “Univer” on TNT. This became known to the general public in December 2021 - the girl appeared at a press conference of Vladimir Putin.

“How do you feel about interacting with young people in such environments, or do you think that the generation is degrading?” - Khilkevich unexpectedly asked Putin after a prepared short presentation of Yappy. “Why is it degrading?” Putin laughed, adding that humanity is always developing, and children are better and smarter than their parents.

Yappy is managed by Rhythm Media, which is part of Gazprom Media. Both GPM projects - Rutube and Yappy - are exclusively implemented through one agency - Insight People, said the director of one of the Moscow advertising agencies (he asked to remain anonymous). The Insight People agency in 2021 entered into contracts with TikTokers to create content for Yappy, wrote the Important Stories publication (the Ministry of Justice entered the publication into the register of undesirable organizations).
Bloggers at Yappy and Rutube are offered between $700 and $2, depending on the number of Instagram followers, says the director of a Moscow advertising agency. The interlocutor clarified that before Instagram was blocked, the “average blogger” was earning more on Yappy – up to $000. For this money, bloggers must create at least 5500 videos per month, interact with subscribers and promote the launch of Yappy in their social networks.

The contract even specifies the wording of how this should be done. They are similar to those used by hockey player Nikita Feoktistov, who spoke about Rossgram, and the bots agitating Syenduk to switch to Rutube: “Yappy is now in private access. Only a limited group of bloggers is connected. Very cozy and lamp party”, “It seems that I'm here for a long time. The platform isn't perfect yet, but the theme is cool. Soon she will be brought to "mind" and she will be "fire".

Insight People also enters into long-term contracts with bloggers for five years. The blogger, under the terms of such cooperation, receives 30% of the advertising revenue, and the agency - 70%.

“Bloggers who advertise Rutube, Yappy and all these “Instagrams” don’t take it seriously, they do it because there is no money – many have come to Moscow and they simply have nothing to live on,” says YusMedia Agency head Dmitry Yusupov. The current situation is a good opportunity for Insight People to attract and take bloggers in the market, he adds.

It follows from the SPARK-Interfax database that Alina Zinnatullina is listed as the general director of Insight People LLC. In the GetСontact application, which shows how the phone number is recorded by other users, Zinnatulina is defined as “Alina Bloggers”, “Alina Insight People Boss”, “Alina Tik Tok Moscow”, “Alina Zinnatulina Yappi” and “Sponsorgazpromededenelno”.

Insight People LLC was established in March last year. In 2021, the company's revenue exceeded $42 million. During this time, many regional branches of the VGTRK filmed stories about the agency - in Orel, Bryansk, Tver, Stravropol, they even had a joint project with the regional branch of United Russia in Tatarstan.

In the questionnaire for bloggers selected by Insight People, the agency asks to indicate, among other things, their political views.

It is not difficult to guess which views are close to the producers. The agency on Instagram is proud of its patriotic projects – residents of Insight People starred in videos dedicated to Flag Day and National Unity Day. And the general producer Ilya Ivlev on his website reports that the agency "implements patriotic projects that are gaining millions of views." At the same time, the contract for bloggers states that the content should not contain jokes and questions on political topics.

Yappy was launched before the war, at the end of 2021. The social network has become more relevant after TikTok partially left Russia. This also happened against the background of the Russian war in Ukraine, but it was not the Russian authorities that blocked the Chinese application - TikTok itself decided to temporarily ban users in Russia from uploading new videos and broadcasting live. The reason is the law on fakes about the Russian army (it provides for criminal liability).

“Temporarily unemployed” from VK

There is another agency in the advertising market that acts as an intermediary between large companies and bloggers. The agency Invite works with "premium" advertising and collaborates with bloggers who are more popular than those selected by Insight People, according to the director of the Moscow advertising agency.

VK has started working with Invite, a source familiar with the situation at VK confirmed. This happened shortly after Sogaz and Gazprombank shared control of the company (the companies each have a 45% stake in MF Tekhnologii JSC, which controls 57,3% of VK's voting shares). A partnership department has appeared in VK, it works with media, bloggers and communities. The revenue of Invite LLC in 2021 exceeded $2 million (in 2020 it was only $2), follows from the SPARK-Interfax database.

Before the restrictions on TikTok, Invite bloggers participated in an advertising campaign for the Moscow metro - they recorded tiktok about the new stations of the Big Circle Line to the tracks "Mom in the Metro" and "Zyuzino", which they wrote specifically for PR of the BCL (this was a project of the Moscow government).

In the film about bloggers “Temporarily Unemployed” by Natasha Gasankhanova (she also works with the Invite agency), Vkontakte is promoted as a platform that compensates for bloggers’ losses associated with YouTube monetization restrictions.
“Invite bloggers don't lose money,” Oleg Fedushchak, COO of Invite, says in this film, commenting on the crisis in the advertising market. – Youtubers will definitely be able to count on the same income from VK to replace YouTube – I guess it’s even more. VK will break out because it is multi-format.”

VKontakte (part of VK) was created by Pavel Durov in 2006. In the fall of 2021, VK presented its new project VK Video - the company combined the resources of VKontakte and another Russian social network, Odnoklassniki. The company claims that the daily audience of VK Video is 40 million people.

Yaroslav Andreev, founder of the Wildjam advertising agency and producer of the Dream Team House tiktok house, believes that the rise of Vkontakte is possible because now there are no alternatives. “If, for example, we abandon all transport, planes, trains and cars, will the horse-drawn mode of transport develop? Well, it probably will. Will he be able to completely cover all the tasks you need? He can’t,” says Andreev.

Sanction-resistant but insecure “Our Store”

In April, the creators of the Russian app store NashStore explained why there had been no news from them for a long time - in a VKontakte post, they posted a Soviet poster with the phrase “The plan is clear. Get to work! The Motherland ordered to build.

NashStore (or “our store” in Russian) was promoted by the authorities in March as an alternative to Google Play, from which many Russian applications have already been removed, including the largest banks that fell under blocking Western sanctions (for example, Sberbank and Alfa Bank ”).

This is done in case the authorities still decide to slow down or block YouTube. YouTube can be slowed down by obliging providers to turn off Global Google Cash (Google servers that are installed by telecom operators), says Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Internet Protection Society.

This is not being done yet, because the slowdown of YouTube will lead not only to the breakdown of the Google ecosystem in Russia, but also to the slowdown of other sites and, as a result, to critical problems in the country's economy. Approximately the same situation was in Belarus and Kazakhstan, when the authorities began to turn off the traffic, and everything stopped working altogether, as Klimarev recalls.

The autonomous non-profit organization “Digital Platforms” was the first to tell about NashStore. Its leader is Arseniy Shcheltsin, who previously worked at the Internet Development Institute, which is headed by Alexei Goreslavsky, former deputy head of the presidential administration's department for public projects. Shcheltsin is also a member of the IT Council under the State Duma, according to the Digital Platforms website (presumably, this refers to the council under the State Duma Committee on Information Policy).

“Russians can no longer normally use Google Play to purchase and pay for applications, and developers have lost their source of income,” Vladimir Zykov, a representative of the ANO Digital Platforms, explained the motivation of the creators of NashStore. He believes that Russia has found itself "in the grip of severe pressure from Western companies."

Zykov, in addition to his activities in Digital Platforms, heads an organization with the complex name Association of Professional Users of Social Networks and Messengers. In 2020, members of this association called on the Ministry of Digital Affairs to fine Western social networks for censoring Russian media.

“Alternative, independent, sanctions-resistant app store for Android”, such definitions were chosen for NashStore by its creators.

It is still difficult to say in what form NashStore will be presented to the Russians, but there are two most likely options. The store may be included in the list of programs that must be pre-installed on smartphones. The law on the pre-installation of Russian software was adopted in 2019. It obliges electronics manufacturers (Apple, Samsung, etc.) to install Russian software on their gadgets intended for sale in Russia.

The second option is to download the store through the Android Package Kit (this is a downloadable file format consisting of Android application codes). This option is more difficult for users and, in addition, users will have to lower the security level of their gadget to install applications that are not verified by Google, explains Klimarev from the Internet Protection Society.

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He warns that this store, like other Russian analogues of blocked Western applications, can be unsafe to use also because the personal data of their users is not protected: “These companies have servers in Russia, employees in Russia. They will not be able to resist and will hand over personal data to the authorities.”

In April, a message was sent to the general chat, which includes bloggers who agreed to work with Yappy, that they would receive documents for April with a delay. “The delay is due to technical difficulties that have developed due to the situation in the world,” the agency representatives explained, probably referring to the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions that have fallen on Russia.

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