Archive for the 'Russia' Category

Twitter Must Make it Easy to Mass-Report Spam Bots

I found a network of Russian female bots. Twitter spam bots.

They are not actually female. They just have Russian female names and female photos.

Most of those that I found were created in September 2016, although some were created at other times.

They all have similar taglines:

  • “In my opinion, everything is wonderful. I wonder what else” (“По-моему всё прекрасно. Интересно что ещё”)
  • “Right now absolutely everything is excellent. I wonder how else” (“Сейчас вообще всё отлично. Интересно как там ещё”)
  • “It looks like absolutely everything is wonderful. I’ll see what will happen next” (“Вроде вообще всё прекрасно. Посмотрю что будет дальше”)

… And so forth, with minor variations, which are very easy to detect for a human who knows Russian, although I’m less sure about software. (This reminds me of how I was interviewed for several natural language processing positions around 2011. All of them were about optimizing site text for Google ads, and all of them specifically targeted only English. When you only target English, other languages are used to spam you.)

Their usernames are all almost random and end with two digits: flowoghub90, viotrondo86, chirowsga88 (although “90” seem to be the most frequent digits). As location, they all indicate one of the large cities of Russia: Moscow, Krasnoyarsk, Perm, Saint-Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, etc.

All of them post nothing but retweets of other accounts popular in Russia:

Curiously, all their names are only typical to ethnic Russians. Names of real women from Russia would be much more varied—there would be a lot of typical Armenian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Georgian, and Tatar names that reflect Russia’s diversity: Melikyan, Petrenko, Rivkind, Gamkrelidze, Khamitova. But these spam bot accounts only have names such as Kuznetsova, Romanova, Ershova, Medvedeva, Kiseleva. If you aren’t familiar with the Russian culture, let me make a comparison to the U.S.: It’s like having a lot of people named Smith, Harris, Anderson, and Roberts, and nobody named Gonzalez, Khan, O’Connor, Rosenberg, or Kim. Maybe the spammers wanted to be more mainstream than mainstream, and maybe it is just overt racism.

I found them when I noticed that a lot of unfamiliar accounts with Russian female names were retweeting something by Pavel Durov in which I was mentioned. Durov is the founder of VK and Telegram, and I guess that he can be classified under “major internet businesses” in the list above. I noticed the similar taglines of the “women”, and immediately understood they are all spam bots.

These accounts are active. Some of them retweeted stuff while I was writing this post. I also keep getting retweet notifications, more than two weeks after Durov’s original tweet was posted.

When I am looking at any of these accounts, Twitter suggests me similar ones, and they are all in the same network: Russian female names, similar “everything is wonderful” taglines, similar content. So Twitter’s software understands that they are similar, but doesn’t understand that they are spam bots that should be utterly banned. I also noticed that some of them are still suggested to me after I blocked them, which goes against the whole point of blocking.

I don’t know how many there are of them in this network. Likely thousands. I reported thirty or so, and I wonder whether it’s efficient for anything.

I also don’t know what is their purpose. Boost the popularity of other Russian accounts? But those that they retweet are popular already. Waste the time of people who try to use Twitter productively? Maybe; at least it’s the effect in my case. Function as bot followers in “pay to follow” networks? Possibly, but they have existed for a year, and they don’t follow so many people.

I’m probably not discovering anything very new in this post. But especially if I don’t, it all the more makes me wonder why isn’t this problem already addressed somehow. At the very least it should be possible to report them more efficiently with one click or tap. And Twitter should also provide a form for mass-reporting; currently, Twitter’s guides about spam only suggest this: “The most effective way to report spam is to go directly to the offending account profile, click the drop-down menu in the upper right corner, and select “report account as spam” from the list.” It’s OK for one account, but it requires five clicks, and it doesn’t scale for something as systematic as what I am describing in this post.

I do hope that somebody from Twitter will read this and do something about it. This is obvious systematic abuse, and I have no better way to report it.

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Polish up the gray

Vladimir Putin started his rule in 2000 from getting his businessman friends to take over the biggest independent Russian newspapers and TV stations, most notably NTV. Initially it continued working as usual, but gradually it became an utterly pro-Putin propaganda station, even worse than the major Russian state channels.

It seemed like the Internet was much more free to criticize the Russian government, but everybody who cared about free press in Russia guessed that the Putin regime knows it, doesn’t like it, and plans to act on it. What happened in 2000 with TV and printed media is happening now with online Russian media. The biggest independent Russian news sources, Gazeta.ru and Lenta.ru, were taken over by SUP, a Russian media company owned by a Putin ally. They initially carried on, but lately their editors in chief were fired, and most of staff resigned as well.

In addition, the popular private cable TV channel Dozhd (a.k.a. tvrain), is being essentially shut down – Russian cable operators stop transmitting it because it carried an “unpatriotic” poll a few weeks ago. It was obviously just an excuse; in fact, lots of people were surprised that it survived for so long despite consistent anti-Putin criticism.

SUP also owns LiveJournal—a pioneering free blogging service, which lost its popularity in the west to WordPress and tumblr long ago, but which is still the leading blogs service in Russia. It’s only a matter of time until it becomes censored as well.

And you know, I could be dramatic about this and say that Russia is in trouble and all that, but actually it’s a very personal problem for me. I left that country for good many years ago, and I call only Israel my home, but I still care about Russia and read news from it every day. I don’t have any reasonable source for Russian news anymore. Radio Free Europe is too anti-Putin to my taste; not in the sense that I like something about Putin (I don’t), but in the sense that it hardly talks about anything else. Pretty much all other independent Russian news sources are weird in some not-so-useful way; mostly Stalinist. I used to read Russian “patriotic”—i.e. antisemitic—sites as a hobby for years, but it became too repetitive to be entertaining. Lenta.ru wasn’t nice to Putin at all, but it also gave me other news from Russia. I don’t want to give up and succumb to reading nothing but Putin propaganda or anti-Putin propaganda. Russia is so much more than that; Life is so much more than that. But I don’t know what to do.

With great sadness I removed Lenta.ru from my RSS reader. I don’t want my brain to melt gradually. I need to find a new source for Russian news, although it may take time.

Here’s to hoping that at least wordpress.com won’t be taken over by a Russian company.

The Original Snakes on a Plane

It may seem tasteless to many of you, but I just had to share it. The lost Malaysian airplane story reminds me of an 1980s Polish-Soviet adventure-sci-fi film “The Curse of Snake Valley”.

It was, without doubt, inspired by Indiana Jones films: a Polish linguistics professor deciphers an ancient manuscript that promises “great power” to anybody who recovers a treasure from South-East Asian temple. He goes to recover it with the help of an aging French tough guy, who turns out to be a villain who wants the power to himself, and a tastelessly sexy female French journalist, who also turns out to be a villain working on behalf of a sinister organization, which – you guessed it – also wants to take over that mysterious power. The treasure turns out to be a biological weapon brought to Earth by aliens who have a thing for snakes (yet another Dr. Jones reference). When the first test of the weapon goes awry and kills the sinister organization’s boss, the new boss sends it for testing in a Pacific atoll, and the airplane that carries it disappears in the sky.

This is the Russian-dubbed version. You can see the airplane scene at 1:31:30.

Don’t have big expectations: The movie was voted in a poll in Poland as one of the worst Polish movies ever. It was, however, a huge hit with Soviet children back in 1988. I went to see it in the neighborhood cinema at least three times, and I had oh so many discussions with my friends about the deep meanings in its plot.

And, well, yes, it reminds of the odd Malaysian story. Can’t help it. At least it’s an opportunity to tell a strange little story from my Soviet childhood.

Bad News From My Old Neighborhood

I was born in Moscow. Moscow is a very important city, but I lived in an unimportant industrial neighborhood—Biryulyovo. Don’t bother too hard to try to pronounce it.

It’s in the headline news now for sad reasons: A young man was murdered there by an immigrant, and now the locals are rioting and shouting racist slogans.

I don’t have much more to say about it. I haven’t lived there since 1991. My sister kept living there, and I visited her at my old apartment in 2005, but she moved since then, so nothing is tying me to that place except childhood memories. Still, it’s kinda upsetting that that’s the reason why I hear about it in the news. I wish that I’d hear about it in a happier context. For example, if a Metro station would be open there. But it’s unlikely that it will have one any time soon.

Pay it Forward Soviet-style

Remember Misha, the Soviet Olympic mascot?

Here’s another example that in the Soviet Union the good things were good: The animated short film “Thank you!” by Vladimir Tarasov.

It’s very Soviet, but in a good way. Three children fly in a plane, enjoy the flight and thank the pilot. The pilot is flattered, but he suggests them to thank the engineer who designed the plane, so they do. The engineer is hinted to be Jewish, and he’s smoking a cigarette while designing the plane—in the 1970s nobody complained that depicting smoking is dangerous to children. The engineer suggests the children to thank the factory workers who built the plane. The factory worker turns out to be Georgian and is depicted as an orchestra conductor; he suggests the children to thank the forgery worker who made the metal for the plane.

The forgery worker, who turns out to be Ukrainian, and even says a couple of Ukrainian words, suggests the children to thank the miner who brought the ore to the forgery. The miner suggests to thank the geologist, who found the ore. And the geologist suggest to thank the pilot, who brought him from to Taiga, where he found the ore.

As with many Soviet animated films, this one is both simple and arty.

Possible censorship of Putin and Medvedev’s names on Russian television

Here’s a somewhat curious story: The Russian TV channel NTV showed a performance by the rock band “Leningrad”, which is famous for incorporating many Russian expletives in its lyrics. The expletives were censored by beeping, which is the usual and expected practice, comparable to beeping on words like “fuck” in American TV. The surprise in this performance, however, was that the names of president Putin and prime minister Medvedev, who were mentioned in the song, were censored the same way. The name of the the Church of Christ the Savior, which recently became famous as the stage of Pussy Riot’s notorious performance, was partly censored as well, although the name “Pussy Riot” itself was not censored.

NTV started out in the early 1990s as one of Russia’s first independent TV channels, but now it’s controlled by the Kremlin.

Here’s the original story at Lenta.ru in Russian. The only thing in English I could find about it, was this story, which is probably machine-translated. So I made a rough edited version so the English would be readable. It’s a reaction of the NTV host and of the former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi to the incident:

“Quacking’ over the names of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev during the performance of the band “Leningrad” on NTV was irony, not an act of censorship. On this, as reported by RIA Novosti , December 10, told the host Vadim Takmenev. “We thought it was a funny trick in this song, so here it was sung openly with a giant duck will quack over the names of the president and the prime minister and the famous building with a dome,” – said Takmenev. He expressed regret that no one understood self-irony. The words “Putin” and “Medvedev” were masked duck quacking during the performance of Sergei Shnurov’s song “Moscow” in the program “CCTV” on December 9. Some cursing was masked, too. Many media saw this as an act of censorship. Meanwhile, according to Vadim Takmenev, if the purpose was censorship, the authors of the program would have chosen a different way: “The options were a few – well, for example, ask the “Leningrad” to sing the song in a more ethereal version. There was an option to score the words that are now all the talk , the names of two people, the music, so no one noticed… Or we could do the song and not put it on the air. If it would be about a censorship. What prevents us to throw this song?” Takmenev also noticed that topical songs on the air has been retained, and by “Leningrad” no questions to transfer arose. The presenter also said that accusations of censorship to the management of NTV in connection with the release of “Central Television” in any case unfounded, since the program is in the external production.

Earlier on Monday, President of the Foundation “Russian Television Academy,” the former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi said that the names of Putin and Medvedev have been removed from the air legally, as is the norm in the law on the protection of the dignity of the president. He did not see political implications in the actions of the authors of ” Central Television”.

Turkic Wikimedia Conference 2012, Almaty – intro

The first Turkic Wikimedia Conference in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan was held last weekend.

Turkic Wikimedia Conference 2012 logo by Batyr Hamzauly. The design of the "TWC" letters is based on Old Turkic runes. licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Turkic Wikimedia Conference 2012 logo by Batyr Hamzauly. The design of the "TWC" letters is based on Old Turkic runes. licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Turkic?

“Turkic” refers to Turkic languages. The most prominent Turkic language, in terms of number of speakers and international awareness of its existence is Turkish, the main language of Turkey. There are, however, many more such languages; Most of them are spoken in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and a few are spoken in China, Afghanistan and other countries.

There first sign of this conference was given in Jimmy Wales’ closing speech of Wikimania 2011 in Haifa. By coincidence, in the same speech Jimmy’s pointer broke down, so I came up on the stage to push the button that moves the slides for him. At some point he asked me not to go too fast, and then he praised Rauan Kenzhekhanuly – the head of WikiBilim, a Kazakh association of people who contribute to Wikipedia, which expanded the Kazakh Wikipedia by many thousands of articles. He was so impressed by their activities that he promised his support for holding a regional Wikimedia conference, and now it happened.

Even though Russian is not a Turkic language, it is the most common language for the majority of the conference participants. As I am one of the few Wikimedia Foundation who speaks it, I was invited there.

Why and how to write Wikipedia in your language

At the conference I delivered several talks. The first was one of the opening keynote speeches – “Why you should write Wikipedia in your language”. In the talk I repeated my usual thesis – writing content and developing software in your native language rather than in a major language is important not just because of nationalism, politics or ideology, but simply because many people don’t know major international languages and thus they cannot access information if it’s written only in a language they don’t know. Before this talk I was told that even in Kazakhstan, where most people know Russian, native Kazakh language speakers often find it easier and more natural to read in Kazakh, especially when it comes to textbooks in schools and universities, and this went along perfectly with what I tried to present.

In that talk I also mentioned practical things that can help people to write in their languages and to join the global Wikimedia community – our mailing lists and our language support tools.

To make it more entertaining and memorable, I said a few words in Hebrew to give the audience the feeling of bewilderment when encountering a foreign language, and told people to stand up and sit down if they know this or that language. Beyond having fun, this little game also had a practical purpose: I delivered most of this talk in Russian and I wanted to make sure that everybody understands me. People from Turkey and other non-Russian-speaking countries were present in the audience and even though there was simultaneous translation into English, I wasn’t completely sure that they understand me. People laughed and applauded, so I guess that it worked.

My answer to the question “will Wikipedia ever carry advertising” was “NO”. This also received thunderous applause.

To be continued…


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