Campaign Kicks Off With Online Tricks

Even though the parliamentary election campaign and the mudslinging expected to accompany it have yet to gain momentum, some parties and politicians have already fallen victim to elaborate schemes designed to damage their reputation in the eyes of their Internet-connected voters.

In the past month, the Communist Party and United Russia, the two parties leading the polls, have seen unidentified pranksters spam Runet users with letters blatantly demanding help in their State Duma campaigns. The Yabloko party has had its web site brought down by virus-generated spam.

United Russia was victimized when someone used a server located in New York to send out some 100,000 copies of a letter on behalf of the party. It gave the real postal address but fake e-mail addresses of the party's Moscow branch.

The letter, which reached an e-mail account of The Moscow Times three days ahead of United Russia's March 29 congress, "insistently recommends" that company managers set up United Russia cells and ensure that at least 5 percent of their employees join these cells. Attached were application forms for those willing to join the pro-Kremlin party.

United Russia swiftly denounced the letter as a prank designed to tarnish its image, while the party's cyber wizards set out to try to track down those behind it. They managed to identify the New York server as the source of the spam, but not the culprits, said Yevgeny Devin, spokesman for the party's Moscow branch.

In a phone interview Friday, Devin said he would rather not speculate on who could have fired this salvo in what may become a full-fledged cyber war.

United Russia's chief competitor -- the Communist Party -- did not have to wait long for the second salvo to be fired.

Last Wednesday, someone flooded Runet e-mail addresses with a letter said to be on behalf of the party that sternly demanded help from journalists and PR specialists in the Communists' election campaign.

Interestingly, the spam flooded Runet on the same day that Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov was holding an online news conference during which he stressed the importance of the Internet in the election campaign. The party, whose base lies in poorer and older segments of the population, has traditionally trailed liberal parties in opinion polls taken among Runet users.

With state-controlled television giving little coverage to the Communists, "we have to look for other methods," Zyuganov said. "The main thing we need funding for is the Internet."

Unlike the United Russia prank letter, the April 16 spam gave the Communist Party's real e-mail address and phone number. It generated some 1,500 responses, with about half of them from people offering assistance and the rest expressing outrage over such a blunt demand for help, said Ilya Ponomaryov, who heads the party's Information Technologies Center.

Ponomaryov said he and fellow party members have tried to answer all respondents to tell them the April 16 letter was a prank but also to reaffirm the party's need for help. "Why decline help if it has already been offered?" he said.

Attempts to find the culprits have led the party to believe they are "persons strongly resembling system administrators of United Russia's Moscow branch," according to a statement posted on the Communist Party's web site. Ponomaryov refused to say why the party believes this.

Maxim Ivanov, a spokesman for United Russia's Moscow branch, denied his party was involved.

Yabloko also has had trouble with spam. Letters were sent to thousands of e-mail addresses March 26-31 with a politely worded request for cooperation on behalf of Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, a party member, and they gave Mitrokhin's official Yabloko e-mail address as the return address.

The spam generated 36,000 responses to Mitrokhin's address and crashed the server, which also hosts the party's web site, said Mitrokhin's spokesman, Konstantin Dorokhin.

In addition to having to resurrect the web site, Yabloko computer specialists also had to permanently shut down Mitrokhin's e-mail address on April 7 to stop the flood of responses.

Yabloko said its computer specialists believe someone sent the spam by infecting a number of servers in Britain, France, Brazil and other countries. Mitrokin has asked the Federal Security Service to try to find the culprits, Dorokhin said.

Yabloko's main liberal rival, the Union of Right Forces, has not suffered from political spam, although someone tried to get hold of the root password to the party's web site, which would have made it possible to delete and add files at will, a party web guru said Friday.

Whether or not those behind the spam cases are found, mudslinging online and otherwise can be expected only to intensify ahead of the December elections.

"The growth in this segment of spam is very rapid," said Igor Ashmanov of Ashmanov and Partners, which specializes in anti-spam software. The company has registered only 10 cases of political spam in Runet in the past half a year, but expects to see as many as several cases of unsolicited political electronic mailings per day this fall, he said by e-mail on Friday.

The other question is whether these compromising e-mails and Internet postings will cause any lasting damage to the political parties they target.

"As a propaganda method this will not be effective unless picked up by television channels," Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank said.

Denis Zenkin, a spokesman for anti-virus and anti-spam software developer Kaspersky Labs, agreed. "Such spam has no future," he said. "The Russian Internet audience is not so politically oriented to make such political spam technologies work.

"Moreover, since most Internet users are not interested in it, such mailings will only irritate them and decrease the popularity of political parties."