The company „Leadway Media Solutions“ had a contract with the right-wing Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSP) for favorable positioning on the web. The agency became known after Bivol revealed that it developed and implemented a comprehensive strategy to manipulate public opinion in favor of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) through hundreds of anonymous profiles and tens of thousands of comments in online media and social networks. The foundation of this propaganda is the notorious “talking points” established by the ruling party. The scandal grew after the investigation shed light on a very serious and organized structure for manipulating public opinion. What Bivol exposed is a typical dissection of our current media environment; the replacement of reality by party-consulting headquarters to exert pressure on the thinking and the views of the public in favor of the current government and the ruling clique.
Hours ago, Bivol got on its editorial email address a file with the following announcement „We believe in free journalism.“ The file, with the extension *. Pdf, is an analysis in favor of DSB, prepared by the same company – “Leadway” – dating from August 2011, the midst of the campaign for local elections. The study of metadata immediately showed some inconsistencies: the file was created on February 14, 2014, only one hour before it was sent by email, but in the column „subject“ the following is indicated – DSB WR 18-24.05.2011. At the same time, in the body of the attached analysis, the scope of the period is described as: August 15-28, 2011. The name and the logo of the company are wrong, with the ridiculous „madia,“ instead of „media.“ There are also visible differences in fonts and noticeable illiterate vocabulary.
However, the careful comparison of the mentioned data in the content and the annexes showed almost 100% match with actual facts and the attached comments and troll identities were also validated. They were activated in the election campaign of Proshko Proshkov, when he was running for mayor of Sofia in 2011. The same trolls and paid messages, as those of BSP in 2013-14, have, been used, Bivol’ investigation showed.
„Leadway Media Solutions“ was established on January 14, 2011, and four days later, Aneta Avramova registered the domain LEADWAY-MS.COM. In May of that year, the online marketing expert, Alexander Stoyanov, applied for a job with “Leadway” and during the interview it was directly explained to him that his duties would include accessing forums of news sites and writing comments on political parties as elections were forthcoming. Stoyanov shared all this in an email to the editorial address of Bivol, sent yesterday, and today he confirmed the information on the phone. According to him, at that time, the company already had two employees working on this and he had to supervise them.
We checked in detail whether any of the already known aliases of commentators, praising MEP Iliana Yotova and BSP in 2013-2014, could be found in the forums from 2011, and found three of them in forums of „Economedia“ (Capital and Dnevnik). These are forum users Mani, registered on January 20, 2011, croushet, registered on February 24, 2011, and kavanozov, registered on May 17, 2011.
All three have been actively involved with posting positive comments on DSB candidate for Sofia mayor Proshko Proshkov, shows the history of their performances in the forums of Dnevnik and Capital.
croushet and kavanozov launched their campaign with an interview with Proshkov from May 16: „I Will Not Enthrall You with Media Shamanism.“
„I hope they will keep their promises, because politicians are humans only during elections. Personally, I ‘m curious about this candidate,“ intriguingly starts kavanozov.
„There is so much hate in this world, for God’s sake!, give chance to Proshkov. I am sure that he has something to show as mayor. I know from many sources that he is a very perceptive person, something that cannot be said for most of our well-known MPs and it works in his advantage,“ croushet writes below.
The following comments of croushet are from May 26, on the subject of primary election for mayor of Sofia in the „Blue Coalition“ and are also eloquent:
croushet, May 26, 2011: „I strongly hope that the DSB candidates will be selected. I am sure that they will show adequate rule, setting an example!“ under the article “UDF (Union of Democratic Forces, the other right-wing party in the now-dissolved Blue Coalition – editor’s note) and DSB Agreed on the Date of the Primaries“ in Capital.
croushet, May 26, 2011: „For me, DSB candidates are the most reliable and I will vote for them, because they are cultured and understanding people, not part of the mafia society that we have…“ under the article „The Primaries of the Blue Coalition for President and Mayor of Sofia Will Be Held on June 12“ in Dnevnik.
After the debate between Kisiov and Proshkov in the primaries, Mani also joins the chorus of the lauders:
Mani on June 9, 2011 „May Kisiov never realize his ideas as they will instate even a greater chaos in Sofia“ under the article “ Proshkov vs. Kisiov on Construction, Dogs and Shafts (video)” in Dnevnik.
In coming weeks, laudatory posts for DSB multiply, and rival BSP candidate, Georgi Kadiev, is taken at gunpoint.
On August 29, 2011, Mani published the following comment [# 28]: „Clearly, Kadiev, with his proposals, himself said he did not want to have any change in mentality and attitudes in society and we should stay on the same path…“ under „What Will They Do for Sofia“ in Capital.
Trolls also held conversations with each other, simulating authentic civic dialogue:
croushet published on September 30, 2011, a response to the comment from „kavanozov“: „The subway was not finished and people really need to go back and see what they have promised…“ under the article „Proshkov: The Amount of Cut Ribbons Does Not Make Sofia Municipality Any Better“ in Dnevnik.
„It seems to me that Kadiev makes it in a more populist way. He is like a broken record with these Tomcats. Proshkov, at least, offers arguments,“ Mani wrote on August 25, 2011.
To which kavanozov „replied“:
„I absolutely agree that Kadiev currently only uses the moment to talk in a populist manner about these Tomcats. This is a subject that Proshkov has talked about for a long time.“
With elections approaching, the rhetoric against the competition is exacerbated:
Mani, October 20, 2011: „To comment [# 72] from „winnie“: “What has Fandakova done to deserve another term? Because she tolerates corruption around her t?“ under „Proshkov: Runoff between GERB and BSP in Sofia Keeps the Status Quo“ in Dnevnik.
croushet, October 21, 2011: „To comment [# 4] by „barcelonski“: “Fandakova may not be corrupt, but the fact is that she is concealing huge scams.“ under „The Last Debate in Sofia – over Stray Dogs, Parking, and Disgruntled Candidates“ in Dnevnik.
Along with political activism, croushet and Mani (both present themselves in the virtual space as ladies) laud mobile phone service provider M-tel and attack the other two – Vivacom and Globul – indicating that “Leadway” does not dependent only on political communication, but on corporate one as well.
DSB – We had such a contract
The treasurer on Karnigradska Street (DSB Headquarters – editor’s note) then, Yuliyan Voynov, confirmed for Bivol that such contract with “Leadway” for favorable online positioning existed and it was reported to the National Audit Office. He also confirmed that he had seen accountability reports, similar to those for BSP and Iliyana Yotova, which indicated the comments and the media in which they were posted.
The new leader of DSB, Radan Kanev, said that he was never informed of this campaign, but promised to check and to issue an official response of the party to our inquiry before the right-wing headquarters about relationships with „Leadway.“
„Leadway“ have not sent a response to the inquiry of Bivol for details of the contract with DSB and contracts with other political parties.
Trolls of the party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)
The first obvious evidence of paid forum commentator appeared at the end of 2012, when user Wrornoxmaniak published several laudatory comments about Boyko Borisov under one of his interviews. In one of them, he forgot do delete the instructions from the Headquarters where and with what “mood” to post.
„To publish under post number 3 at the beginning. Mood should be neutral or upset.“
As early as that time, Dnevnik indicated they were considering imposing a „rule or other functionality to limit the inclusion of „paid „commentators.“ However, this did not prevent croushet, Mani and other veteran trolls of “Leadway” to campaign in a storm, as the analysis of Capital weekly from Saturday showed. Their performances in recent months were invariably in favor of BSP. There is also specific praise for Iliyana Yotova.
croushet, on July 30, 2013, posted [# 76]: „and rightly so – with all this stealing and sabotage from GERB, I do not know what else we can expect“ under the article „Yordan Tsonev Fears Recession by the End of 2013“ in Dnevnik.
Five days ago, Mani posted [# 21]: „Yotova is right, there should be a specific policy and campaign against ABV (the recently revived movement of former President and former BSP leader, Georgi Parvanov, seen by current BSP leadership as a threat in the European elections – editor’s note) – dead dogs don’t bark. Actually, ABV are frantically trying …“ under „BSP’s Ballots for the European Elections Will Be Ready in Two Weeks“ in Dnevnik.
On September 11, 2013, Mani posted [# 82]: „a very accurate forecast of Yotova – even early presidential elections are more likely than early parliamentary ones…the gaffes in …“ under „Iliana Yotova Predicts EP, General and Presidential Elections in Spring.“
Etc., dozens of comments posted in just one day, campaigning for BSP and personally for Yotova can be seen in the profiles of „veterans“ Mani and croushet.
Operation „Clean Forums“?
Bivol knows very well the problem with trolls, as we, ourselves, have been victims of vicious, well-coordinated and organized attacks after the publication of the file „Buddha,“ disclosing the criminal past of former Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov.
These practices differ very little from the nostrum of communist State Security when cops and agents of the services distributed in society gossip or slander, manipulating the already barely simmering public opinion, exposed to radiation from the central print and broadcast bodies of the Party.
Nowadays, trolls are not only annoying, but their obsessive lauding and hatred deprive of sense and effect the freedom of expression in forums and rather hurdle any informed choice. It has already become crystal clear that there is demand on this black market and not just one company can be caught in turning such tricks. These mishaps will, most likely, continue to discredit those offering the services, but this is not enough.
The fight against trolls will succeed only if the public players – the political parties – stop seeking these services and stop paying for them with taxpayers’ money from their generous subsidies. So far, we have not seen a clear party bid for voluntary withdrawal from paid “forum love” to challenge the rest. We saw plenty of lies, evasions and half-admissions from BSP and personally from Yotova, who was pressured by Brussels. In this context, we expect with increased interest DSB’s reaction.