Finding Kazakhstan’s Troll Farms

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Finding Kazakhstan’s Troll Farms

Nurbots fill comment sections across the Kazakh internet. They may not be convincing but they pollute online discourse.

Finding Kazakhstan’s Troll Farms
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz, Pixabay

The topic of Russian interference in the American online space is widely discussed today; however, similar attacks on domestic online discourse in authoritarian states is rarely noticed. Every day, the comment sections on Kazakhs news sites fill with thousands of comments, many of them eerily similar in praising the government, no matter the content of the article. For example, after opening a video on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s latest public speech on a major news portal, we see a series of similar comments expressing support for the president. Often, such comments are downvoted into oblivion.

Kazakhs call these commenters Nurbots. The “Nur” part mirrors an overwhelming tendency to call every government project Nur-something (there’s the ruling Nur Otan party or the Nur Astana mosque) and the “bot” part referring to the seeming automatic generation of such comments. The name is also reminiscent of their Russian counterparts, Kremlebots — internet users who get paid by the state to leave comments and create pro-governmental content. These so-called Nurbots are expected by Kazakhs to be present in the comment sections of many websites, so they are often read with suspicion and the epithet “Nurbot” is thrown at those who support the policy of the government in one way or another.

The prevalence of Nurbots in Kazakh media was recently acknowledged by a Zonakz article, which talked about how the prevalence of such bots changes the way online media works. Unlike their Russian or Chinese (the 50 Cent Party, or wumaos) counterparts, Nurbots have never gotten a lot of attention from either local or international media. Most mentions of Nurbots overseas come from exiled Kazakh opposition member Mukhtar Ablyazov. In this article I would like to offer a look at the Nurbots and their activities within the larger context of Kazakh internet regulations.

First of all, a few examples of Nurbots at work. We have comments like “I think our president is the only one thinking of people” and “about salaries, if you are professional enough, you can always find a place with a decent salary.” The main feature of these comments is a pro-government stance, similar structure, and often liberal use of grammar. These comments are frequently called out by other users, who give them a negative rating and reply with “Nurbot” accusations to discredit the legitimacy of the original poster’s comment.

What are the most popular news topics in the Kazakh online space that attract the attention of Nurbots? To figure that out we first need to pay attention to Antonovka (the current official name is Kershitas), a village in the south of Kazakhstan with a population of 1,766, as of 2009. A few years ago, a Kazakh blogger noticed that the small village was among the top cities that Google Trends identified as searching for the president’s name (or Astana EXPO 2017). The disparity between Antonovka’s small population compared with major cities that vary between 145,000 to 1.7 million people beside it in the ranking suggests that it is a location for a Nurbot office. A similar open source technique was used to locate the offices of Kremlebots in Olgino and Balashikha.

Using the location, we can take a look at a snapshot of the Kazakh internet on January 29. Using the ranking of about 100 most popular news articles of the day in an aggregate of Kazakhstan’s most popular news portals, we can see more or less an accurate view of trending news that day. Most of the news trends were rooted in sports, celebrity, and criminal news, with some political and economic news. The next step is checking keywords in Google Trends with the locations of most searches possible.

From the results, it’s apparent that the Nurbots are interested in grand scheme politics. They’re active in topics with the last name Nazarbayev, but also the plight of the national currency, the tenge, or the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was under fire recently for failing to prevent the murder of Denis Ten, a renowned Kazakh figure skater. Nurbots are not too interested in smaller political names or criminal news that could also reflect badly on the government. Another area of interest was sports; names like professional boxer Gennady Golovkin, Denis Ten, and Barys hockey club were targeted by Nurbots. The foreign affairs of strategically important states like China and the United States were both covered by high Antonovka searches. Perhaps the most bizarre example was the name of Svetlana Loboda, the Ukrainian singer. These results are somewhat similar to the impressions of Zonakz media, which talked about the way official news reports get the largest amount of comments, while average users are not as interested in these types of articles.

From the snapshot analysis, we can see that apart from Svetlana Loboda’s bizarre inclusion, the main objects of attention are either in diverting attention from crises (the tenge’s troubles and Denis Ten’s murder fit this description) or strengthening images of success, such as national sports stars; and heaps of praise for Nazarbayev. This, of course, is a limited analysis of Nurbot actions.

Infiltrating internet discourse is not the only way the government of Kazakhstan executes control over its internet space. Temporarily and permanently blocking websites and slowing internet connection speeds are increasingly becoming avenues of control.

Kazakhstan has experience blocking websites. For example, the blogging site LiveJournal wasn’t available from 2007 to 2010, and then again from 2011 to 2015, which many attributed to Rakhat Aliyev. Aliyev, an exiled former member of the president’s extended family, published a book that wasn’t flattering to the president on LiveJournal. The platform, which was founded in the United States but sold to a Russian media company in 2007, only became available in Kazakhstan again after Aliyev’s death in 2015. The Kazakh government has blocked various other websites, once blocking the entire WordPress platform.

Recently, blockages of other social media popular in Kazakhstan have become more widespread, according to KazNet users. Much of the recent blockages appear to relate to content generated by Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled opposition leader. Ablyazov’s creation of online content and online activity frequently coincide with social networks or internet connections not being fully available. The blockages and any connection to Ablyazov have been denied by state officials.

The extent of this aspect of internet control has increased recently with the introduction of legislation on October 28, 2018 that, among other stipulations, allows four governmental branches to restrict citizens’ communication tools, in cases of social, natural, and technological emergencies. Social emergencies are yet to be defined. Minister of Communications Dauren Abayev promised to find out what “social emergencies” will be deemed to warrant internet restriction.

Both restricting internet access and infiltrating ongoing discourse serve the purpose of limiting the information (and quality of that information) available to citizens. Particularly, filling the online discourse with throwaway comments, although not really fooling citizens into believing in genuine support among commenters (given the negative responses), makes productive online discussion more difficult, according to Tenove’s report on the influence of foreign internet agents on the U.S. online space. Even if bots fail to convince online users of their arguments, online discussions are nevertheless polluted with singular viewpoints, making it difficult for alternative points of view to break through. Ultimately, this makes the process of discussion online less productive. Also, generating traffic for news showing the state in a positive light helps promote this kind of news as “trending” over negative stories.

Internet blockages work in a more straightforward way, but if used frequently they are quite costly to the state’s economy, as the country’s businesses increasingly need social networks and connections to operate. Online trolling, in a sense, has become an effective way of weakening democratic deliberation online without antagonizing citizens in the way traditional internet blockages do.

Nazira Kozhanova is a Master’s student in Political Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She is from Kazakhstan.