This dynamic might help explain why every new policy announcement shared on the mayor’s verified Twitter account (@MosSobyanin) instantly attracts dozens of overenthusiastic replies. “Thank you, Mr. Sobyanin!” many of them say. “We’ve been waiting for this for so long!”

If you actually look at these Twitter accounts, however, you’ll see that most of them belong to local council members and members of Sobyanin’s own political party, United Russia.

But “astroturf” youth activists and local councils are hardly the Moscow government’s only means of promoting its agenda and drowning out opposing voices. City Hall’s schemes to influence the public often flirt with outright criminal activity, as well.

An investigation by The Moscow Times revealed that Mayor Sobyanin’s office in fact manages the “We Support the Demolition of the Khrushchevki” community group on Vkontakte, controlling the group through a shady network of companies.

An outfit called Moscow Information Technologies, or MIT (set up by Sobyanin’s predecessor, former Mayor Yuri Luzhkov), is officially tasked with “providing informational support for the city’s projects.”

But a more honest explanation of MIT’s activities is that it serves as a vehicle for subversive propaganda on the city’s behalf.

A series of stolen emails released by the hacker group “Shaltai Boltai” (whose members the Federal Security Service arrested earlier this year) shows that MIT was involved in a clandestine program to conspire with the Russian media by running articles discrediting opposition candidates in local elections. This effort included fabricating evidence against opposition activists and suppressing unwanted coverage — a clear violation of Russian media laws.

Smearing on mayor’s behalf

According to the organization’s leaked ledgers, MIT used to funnel up to a million rubles ($17,000) from the mayor’s office for a single newspaper story that either praised City Hall or smeared its opponents. Media outlets published these stories with phony bylines, disguising the fact that this content was essentially a paid advertisement.

The mayor’s office also manipulates the media for favorable coverage through other, more legally sound but still surreptitious means. On top of maintaining a legitimate media empire funded to the tune of 13 billion rubles a year ($230 million) that includes several TV channels, radio stations, and online news websites, Sobyanin’s administration heavily invests in swaying the agenda on Yandex.News, Russia’s biggest online news aggregator.