Putin Is Taking Lessons From Trump on How to Win at the PollsBy , , and
Kremlin seeks to copy Cambridge Analytica for microtargeting
Rise of Internet, decline of state TV pose election hurdle
The Kremlin thinks it knows the secret to Donald Trump’s election victory -- and it’s not the kind of hacking you might think.
The man Putin hired to deliver the crushing re-election win he’s seeking next March, Sergei Kiriyenko, wants to emulate Trump’s use of microtargeting -- the mix of data mining and psychological profiling to deliver finely tuned ads -- against Hillary Clinton, four people familiar with the matter said.
Kiriyenko, who was premier when Russia defaulted in 1998, ordered his staff to create a kind of domestic version of Cambridge Analytica, the people said. The company, which is funded by a wealthy Trump supporter, Robert Mercer, promotes what it calls “psychographic” techniques to sway voters and claims to have collected up to 5,000 data points on more than 230 million Americans.
“The political guys say, wow, this is a magic wand that will help us win,” said Alexander Oslon, who runs the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow and has worked on presidential campaigns for two decades.
Unlike Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who relied on U.S. advisers in his re-election campaign, the microtargeting project will be purely Russian, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal Kremlin matters. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment.
The emergence of a new generation of voters accustomed to social media means the Kremlin can no longer rely on its total control over television alone to hammer home its message and achieve the desired results at the ballot box.
A poll released last week by state-run Vtsiom showed that just 52 percent of Russians identify TV as their main source of news, down 10 points in the last two years. Sixty-five percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and half of those aged 25 to 34 say they rely on the Internet for news. The pollster’s confidence index for central television, a measure of trust, fell to 42 from 58 five years ago.
Putin’s team got a wake-up call this spring, when an opposition-produced web video alleging corruption on the part of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who swapped jobs with Putin for four years, got millions of hits and helped trigger the biggest anti-Kremlin protests in years.
“There’s a crisis of ideas in the Kremlin,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “They can’t figure out how to respond to new demands from society. All they’re talking about now is political technologies, there’s nothing substantive behind it.”
Putin’s approval ratings remain near record highs, but with the economy sputtering out of the longest recession of his 17-year rule, popular enthusiasm for a fourth term is limited. To claim a mandate, the Kremlin wants to be able to say that Putin won the votes of at least half of Russia’s 112-million strong electorate, according to a person involved in the planning. That would require winning about 70 percent of the vote, assuming turnout is also 70 percent.
Last time, in 2012, Putin won 64 percent and the turnout was 65 percent, but that was when the economy was still growing and living standards were improving. In last year’s parliamentary elections, the results for Putin’s United Russia party were much weaker, with turnout at 48 percent, the lowest ever.
That’s where microtargeting comes in. The idea is to combine data from market research, consumer companies and social networks with psychological profiling to identify small groups of voters and the messages that will get them to come out and vote for Putin. Social media, including local networks like VK and messengers like Telegram, could be used to deliver the targeted pitches.
It’s one thing to track consumer behavior -- companies all over the world already do that. But it’s another thing to be able to manipulate voters by understanding how they think, whether they’re, say, more anxious than optimistic, and then feed them ads that play on that assessment.
Just how big a contribution microtargeting made to Trump’s victory remains a matter of debate in the U.S., where other candidates also used elements of it. But that hasn’t sapped enthusiasm in Russia, where an early test of the strategy could come in regional polls in September, two of the people said. The stakes in the presidential vote are immeasurably higher.
One obstacle, perhaps surprisingly for a country widely considered autocratic, are strict rules on data privacy that make aggregating personal information difficult, according to Vtsiom chief Valery Fyodorov. Russia also lacks the kind of clear party affiliations that U.S. voters have and few people here have any experience with psychological profiling.
“There’s a lot of doubt that microtargeting is going to take off here soon,” Fyodorov said, declining to say whether he’s involved in the Kremlin project.
Putin’s team has some catching up to do with the president’s critics, who are already mining tens of millions of social media profiles for data that isn’t covered by privacy restrictions to get their messages out, according to Artur Khachuyan, who heads SocialDataHub, a data-analysis firm in Moscow.
“The Trump electoral technologies are actively being used, just by the opposition,” said Khachuyan, whose company gained prominence in its tight-knit field last year with research on the porn-surfing habits of ruling party candidates that was gleaned from accounts on social media.
Gleb Kuznetsov, a political analyst who works with the Kremlin on domestic politics, said the excitement over microtargeting is just the latest hope that “some magician will come and fix things and it will all work out.”
“Nobody likes to talk about the fact that Trump got about 3 million fewer votes than Clinton and conducted something like 10 times more meetings with voters,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s so boring.”