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Russian Election Roundup

An election produces a wealth of information—not just votes, but news stories, commentary, and an avalanche of online conversation.
Russian Election Roundup
Photo by engin akyurt / Unsplash

Putin’s Pre-Election Propaganda Blitz, Attacks and Intimidation at the Polls, and the Youth Vote

The main outcome of the Russian election was never in doubt: Vladimir Putin has once again won the presidency.

The election certainly wasn’t fair. Anti-war candidates were kept off the ballot, which included only Putin and three Kremlin-vetted “opponents” (none of whom promoted significantly different policies than the incumbent or were expected to present a serious challenge). Armed troops patrolled the polls, and one of Putin’s main rivals, Alexei Navalny, died a month before the election under suspicious circumstances. 

Still, an election produces a wealth of information about a country—not just votes, but news stories, commentary, and an avalanche of online conversation. FilterLabs.AI was monitoring online discourse in the run-up to the election and kept a careful eye on the discussion surrounding the event itself. 

1. Putin’s Pre-Election Propaganda Blitz

Consider the following graph, which tracks sentiment in mainstream media stories that mention Putin. We’ve marked the date of two events: the death of Navalny, and a speech Putin delivered to the Russian parliament:

As would be expected given the Kremlin’s tight control over the mainstream news media, sentiment in stories that mentioned Putin remained level after Navalny’s death. While there was plenty of coverage of Navalny’s death that was negative in tone, these stories generally did not mention Putin. Instead, FilterLabs found that the Russian media generally blamed Navalny’s death on an illness or (oddly) “the West.” Stories that did mention the president were generally citing Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov’s indignant rebuke of the West for assuming Putin was involved.

Now compare the mainstream media to discussion on Russian social media and other online forums by individual Russians:

Here sentiment on Putin drops sharply after Navalny’s death. It seems that ordinary Russians were far more willing to speculate that the Kremlin, or Putin himself, was behind Navalny’s death than the Russian news outlets were.

But then sentiment on both social media and mainstream media shot up again, right around February 29th. A sudden change in sentiment often means that a new narrative has spread across the media ecosystem—whether due to a newsworthy turn of events, or a coordinated media campaign, or both. In this case, the immediate cause of the bounce was Putin’s speech before the federal parliament. It received rapturous coverage in the mainstream press and on social media. 

But the speech wasn’t the only story. Looking more closely, FilterLabs noticed that a wave of news stories highlighting Putin and his party's domestic achievements was already underway. We saw evidence of this campaign even in the lead-up to Putin’s announcement of his re-election bid back in December, but the volume of messaging increased in early 2024. Stories featured regional and national projects, such as infrastructure improvements, hospitals, schools, awards, and festivals. The war was hardly ever mentioned. So the new push of stories related to Putin’s speech came on top of this sustained wave of enthusiastic coverage.

By detecting the shift in sentiment, and then looking more closely at the actual stories, FilterLabs was able to get a look at Putin’s election strategy. First, the Kremlin did not sit idle. The result of the election was never in doubt, but Putin’s campaign, and its media allies, appeared to have made a big final push anyhow. Second, they emphasized domestic issues. And third, they stayed mostly quiet about Ukraine. 

2)  Election Security, Protests, and Violence

The FilterLabs team has also been paying attention to what Russians are saying about election security, protests, and violence at the polls. Because this is a narrower topic and the election took place over only three days (March 15-17), there isn’t sufficient longitudinal data to generate statistically significant trends or shifts in sentiment on these issues during the election. But, using Talisman, we were still able to unearth some pretty interesting artifacts that provide anecdotal insights into what people are talking about.

Multiple articles insisted that election observers were ensuring the fairness and legitimacy of elections. The Moscow prosecutor’s office warned that any attempts to disrupt the election would result in legal consequences, and the Chairman of the Central Election Commission blamed the need for increased security and secondary voting locations on “a toxic international atmosphere,” meaning Western criticism of the Russian electoral process.

The Russian government promised to come down hard on any disruptions. The Federal Security Service (otherwise known as the FSB) threatened a 3 to 5-year prison sentence for anyone interfering with the elections. 

Even so, some Russians not only protested but actually tried to destroy ballots. One technique was to pour “brilliant green” antiseptic into ballot boxes. FilterLabs found reports of green dye protests in the central Russian Kuraginsky district and in the city of Izhevsk, west of the Ural mountains. In the Northern Caucasus a woman poured iodine on voter lists. 

There were also a number of literally fiery protests. In the Moscow region a young woman tried to throw a molotov cocktail at a polling station (no one was harmed, though she was detained). An older woman in Ivanovo, north of Moscow, doused paper with a flammable liquid, lit it on fire, and then dropped it into a ballot box. In Krasnodar, a girl was arrested for setting fire to a tablecloth at a polling station. There were social media posts reporting fires at multiple polling stations. 

In all, the First Deputy Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Alexander Gorovoy reported that 33 criminal cases were opened due to the bringing of dyes and flammable liquids into voting stations.

There were peaceful protests as well. A man showed up to a polling station in a t-shirt that read “Navalny,” and was arrested. Other activists staged “noon against Putin” events, where voters arrived at the polls at 12 pm as a peaceful and symbolic act of protest. Mainstream reports of these protests portrayed them as small (at least one independent outlet’s coverage suggested otherwise) and sponsored by Western powers. Despite the protests being peaceful, several “noon against Putin” participants were arrested in Kazan.

Overall, the independent Russian news organization OVD-Info recorded almost 100 people being arrested at polling sites around the country. They were arrested for conducting exit polls, filming alleged ballot stuffings, distributing leaflets about the lack of choice in the elections, campaigning for anti-war candidates who had been barred from the ballot, and wearing symbols associated with Alexei Navalny and his organizations.  

To be clear, these protests were relatively rare, considering Russia’s size. And Russian media, reliably or not, reported that some of the protests had been paid, including by Ukrainian scammers who assured protesters they would receive money to cancel debts. Still, it is notable that some Russians are willing to interfere directly in the election process. A few, at least, are increasingly angry and desperate. 

3) Youth Response

Another element of the Russian elections FilterLabs was curious about was the youth vote. What were young people talking about? What were Russian news sources and online media discussions saying about youth participation during the days of the election? Talisman was able to unearth a variety of posts and commentary on the subject, both from Russian news outlets and from a variety of social media, messaging apps, and forums.

There were, of course, news stories about young people voting happily for the regime. These stories came from all over the country. For instance, a story about students at the Far Eastern Federal University claimed that the majority had voted for Putin. Another story from the far-east port city of Kholmsk showed youth poll workers in high spirits. There were similar stories from the western half of the country. One portrayed young volunteers helping voters in the Leningrad region near Finland. In the far western area Tver Oblast, local news reported Yulia Saranova, a member of the Russian State Duma, declaring “today we see a lot of young people at the polling stations.”

But along with these feel-good news stories, there were signs of discontent, too. 

For instance, on Dvach (a Russian image-sharing site similar to 4chan that serves as the main distribution platform for memes), a video showed a group of young people casting “ironic [votes] for Putin.” Of course, as is often the case with online youth culture, it was hard to tell how serious they were. Commenters were split as to whether the video makers were actual critics of the regime, or secret trolls trying to get a rise out of “liberals.” Others commenters on the video post decided that, either way, they were idiots: “18-year-old guys voting for Putin, like animals on a farm voting for a slaughterer.” 

Some young people seemed to be abandoning politics entirely. On Reddit, young men said they were afraid to go to the polling stations, where they could be conscripted. In Krasnodar Krai, a young person wrote about being tired of living in a rural area surrounded by pro-war neighbors. Comments on the post recommended migration, becoming apolitical, or otherwise retreating from Russian public life. 

Others, though, insisted on taking the election seriously. Talisman surfaced several instances of people posting pictures on Reddit of ruined or blank ballots, which were then followed by commenters encouraging each other to vote for Vladislav Davankov, of the moderate New People party. 


Putin won handily, as expected. He remains a popular figure and has the support of almost the entire mainstream media, which pushed positive stories about him in the months leading up to the election. 

Still, the election revealed some discontent. Some ordinary Russians took the extraordinary step of destroying their ballots, or many ballots at once, despite the possibility that they would face long prison terms. Other Russians, many young, seemed to retreat into apathy and irony.

One point FilterLabs saw was that Putin was able to win relatively easily because the opposition was divided. There is discontent in Russia, but after the death of Navalny, it is unclear where it could coalesce into a genuine opposition movement.