The Nation Leader’s farm: who manages the bot and troll networks in Kazakhstan

(This investigation originally published on this website in Russian and Kazakh on April 2019. Authors: Pavel Bannikov and Victoria Lee)

Nurbots (male) is a phenomenon known to every Kazakhstani. These fake accounts in social networks vigorously comment on official messages, sing hosanna to the first president (Nursultan Nazarbayev) and government projects, and, if necessary, support criticism of the objectionable. The main task of nurnyashki (female) is to give positive comments about the internal politics and activities of government agencies and, along with nurbots, to promote ideas of the party to masses. 

Even before Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resign from presidency and subsequent series of renaming, we decided to follow the behavior of the nurbots on Facebook and unintentionally revealed a whole network of fake accounts that are used to promote official pages, state programs, institutions and initiatives of the party.

In addition, we partially clarified the principle of financing of nurbots and found at least one company that creates and manages the bots. We also assessed the marketing effectiveness of the Foundation of the First President promotion on Facebook. To do this, we analyzed a random sample of several dozen accounts commented on the page of the Foundation of the First President last year. Here are the results.

Nurnyashki: who is who

To verify accounts, we used the Graph.Tips script written by a member of the Bellingcat group, Hank van Ess. Photos were checked using the RevEye plugin. (Read more about the technique here.) Almost all commentators’ accounts are coincide to the same model:

  • profile photo is stolen from user accounts of the Russian and Kyrgyz segments of the VK;
  • there are minimum number or the lack of post on a page;
  • comments from those accounts are found solely on the pages of the Foundation of the First President, Mazhilis (Lower House of Parliament in Kazakhstan), Roukhani Zhangyru, Nur Otan party; in the thematic list of groups as well.  

Typical examples

Kamshat Umbetova | Photo stolen from the page of the Yakut girl Irina Handa in VK. There is no a single personal comment, all comments are found on the official pages. All “friends” added in February.

Albina Abilova | Photo stolen from VK-profile of another girl from Yakutsk. There is no a single personal comment, all comments are found on the official Nur Otan pages.

Yerassyl Sultanov | Photo was stolen from the VK user Alexander Khamnushkin. There is no a single personal comment, all comments are found on the official Nur Otan pages.

Karim Akhmedov | Photo source is not installed. There is no a single personal comment, all comments and likes are found on the official Nur Otan pages. Majority of friends added in August 2018.

Bots on Instagram

The same situation is observed on Instagram. Bots comment on all the same accounts of Roukhhani Zhangyru and the Foundation of the First President.

  • User @madina_8181 is not really Madina Zhanysbaeva, as indicated in her profile. All photos in this account were uploaded on February 7, and belong to a resident of Yakutsk, Irina Stepanova. @madina_8181 is subscribed to three accounts, which are Rouhani Zhangyru and the Foundation of the First President, as well as to some Almat Mendigaliuly. He is listed as a businessman in his profile, but in 2011 he was Deputy Executive Secretary in Zhas Otan.
  • Another active commentator is @amiratanatarova, known as Amira Tanatorova, is of the same “style”. Her photo belongs to another Yakut, Alyona Alekseyeva. “Amira” is subscribed to 22 pages, where Almat Mendigaliuly appears again.
  • Commentator @aisulu_8080 has the same biography: posts from February 7, Yakut roots, subscriptions to Rouhani Zhangyru and the Foundation of the First President.

It should be noted that account management is quite systematic and well made from the point of view of social networks marketing. There are practically no identical comments, obviously, a copywriter or a group of copywriters work with bots. However, a lot of comments are of the same type, which is associated with the specifics of this network of bots. In addition, it is worth noting that on the Nur Otan party page, commentators are mostly real people. (To learn how effective nur-marketing is, read in the end of the article.)

Apart from the party goals, a number of the Facebook bots was used in 2017–2018 for the promotion of the Kazakh edition of 365info.kz. The major activity of bots was observed in 2018. A number of the bots are in common groups, the set of groups is approximately the same; 1 to 10 matches in groups.

Bots leave comments only under posts from personal accounts by Maxim Spotkay, who is a deputy general director of the NUR-Media holding company.

What pages the bots are subscribed to: 

  • The Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy 
  • Bolashaqqa Bakhdar: Roukhani Zhangyru
  • Mazhilis (Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan)
  • Nur Otan
  • A thousand and one personality of Ablyazov
  • Sushi Boloto (Drain the Swamp)

In the course of the investigation, we discovered a remarkable nurbot-project, which is the Sushi Boloto (Drain the Swamp) page, aimed at information battle against the DVK, recognized in Kazakhstan extremist party, and a fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.

The page is worth a separate study, and the group is attached to it too. In the near future, we plan to analyze anti-Ablyazov pages in social networks. In the meantime, we note that half of the bots we found actively comment on the publications of these particular pages and groups.

“Who do you work for?”

In the course of checking the page of the Foundation of the First President and those related to it, we found two live accounts, commenting on the page and other nur-pages, but clearly being managed by real people, judging by their profiles, photos and activities.

We were intrigued by the fact that they turned out to be the only ones (besides Maxim Spotkay), whose posts were commented by the bots. The comments did not relate to their main task or were even abstract, so we decided to take a closer look at these accounts. 

Based on the names, Mohammed and Mayrbek Zavriyev, we may assume that they are relatives, perhaps brothers. The first one is not only active social networks user (has two profiles), but also leaves quite critical comments regarding a number of Kazakhstani realities. The second one writes lengthy and competent posts in support of the authorities, especially Nursultan Nazarbayev. There are also posts on socially exciting topics. The same place of work is mentioned in both profiles, that is SMMNETWORK LLP. Now we shall check the LLP.

The co-founder of SMMNETWORK is Kazakhstan Today Agency (not to be confused with KAZAKHSTAN TODAY MEDIA GROUP LLP); the head of the SMMNETWORK is Turgymbayeva Ayazhan, the LLP is registered in Astana. 

Ayazhan is also listed as an individual entrepreneur of information agency and as the head of VISION PRO LLP, registered in Almaty at the following address: Mukanov str., 241.

Just like the VISION PRO, „MIR PRESS“ MEDIA AGENCY LLP registered at the same address. Zavriyev Mohammed owns the latest company. The Zavrievs citizen and Ms Turgymbaeva are friends on Facebook, which is quite predictable. However, Ayazhan Turgymbayeva’s page is weakly active or maintained in friends only mode.

Companies are engaged in the production of media content and promotion. In addition, the website kazsmm.kz is indicated in the profile of Mohammed Zavriyev, which is not working at the moment.

We checked through HeadHunter and Linkedin those who identified themselves as employees of SMMNETWORK now or in the past. All of them were engaged in the promotion of the same pages.

By the way, none of the named LLPs involved in the promotion and production of content has its own operating website or at least an advertising landing page. At the same time, these companies do not participate in public procurements, however, on the website of the State Revenue Committee they show quite good indicators on paying taxes (and, respectively, financial turnover) for small enterprises, which they are registered as.

We shall not try to explain how media content producers are looking for contracts without advertising and landings; we are not financiers or specialists in tenders, this is not our task. However, the data we obtained definitely indicates that one of these LLPs sources of income is the maintenance and support of the pages of the Foundation of the First President, the Nur-Otan party, some of the initiatives of the Rouhani Zhangyru program; and information support of the campaigns against Mukhtar Ablyazov. Apparently, these LLPs act as subcontractors. 

The kompra.kz website kindly provided us with a visual communication scheme of SMMNETWORK LLP. So we can see the whole scheme of connections between The First President Foundation and some content generators.

Communications of Kazakhstan Today LLP 

P.S. KPI of Nur-marketing 

It is also worth noting that at the time of working on this article, the number of subscribers of the Foundation of the First President was over 58,000; bots created the main activity on page. Sometimes there were only bots. After analyzing dozens of publications, we found only a few comments from live accounts. The same applies, by the way, to those pages created against Mr. Ablyazov; there is practically a zero active from live accounts.  

To be substantive, let us present the analysis of the pages of the Foundation of the First President, Factcheck.kz and the “Base” public page, conducted with the help of the Popsters.ru service. The service allows you to analyze various parameters of ER (user involvement), LR (likes rating), commenting, subscriptions, etc. As we can see from the screenshot (here is more detailed analysis data), the promotion of our site is 4 times more efficient than that of the Foundation of the First President. The “Base” approximately 20 times excels the Foundation of the First President. At the same time, the costs for our promotion on Facebook have never exceeded 500,000 tenges (including the wages of SMM-specialist). 

The question is, are such KPIs worth the cost? The second question: does the customer need real user support? or Are fake comments and imitation of activity enough? It seems that the answer to the second question is obvious.

Meanwhile, last year the press service of the Foundation of the First President was recognized as the best press service. We do not know whether the estimation included the work with those pages in social networks. We want to think it was not. We hope the material was useful to you. We shall continue analyzing social nur-marketing.