Russian bots rigged Voice Kids TV talent show result

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Mikella Abramova got far more votes than any of the other contestants

The result of a popular Russian TV talent show – The Voice Kids – has been cancelled after thousands of fraudulent votes were found to have handed victory to a millionaire’s young daughter.

There were complaints after singer Mikella Abramova, aged 10, won with 56.5% of the phone-in vote.

She is the daughter of pop singer Alsou and wealthy businessman Yan Abramov.

State-owned Channel One TV says it will make its voting system safer, and the children will appear in a special show.

A cyber security firm, Group-IB, was hired to examine the vote for Mikella Abramova, after the final of The Voice Kids, which is in its sixth season on Russian TV.

“The interim results of the check confirm that there was outside influence on the voting, which affected the result,” a Channel One statement said (in Russian).

The Voice Kids is a worldwide franchise, a spin-off from the hugely popular talent show The Voice.

Channel One said the voting scam on 26 April “must be the first and last time that anyone tries to control the audience’s choice”.

However, it added: “Children should not take the blame for actions carried out by somebody else. Each participant becomes a member of the big Voice family.” It remains unclear who was behind the scam.

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Mikella’s mother Alsou (R), from Azerbaijan, is a successful pop star

‘Bots were used’

According to investigators, more than 8,000 text messages were sent from about 300 phone numbers during the vote.

A Group-IB statement said (in Russian) that sequential phone numbers had been used to send automated votes – in other words, “bots were used in this case”.

“More than 30,000 votes came in for one contestant from those phone numbers,” Group-IB said. Rival singers got no more than 3,000 votes each, Russia’s Kommersant daily reported.

Bots are automated programmes which can carry out a command thousands of times.

‘They listened to the people’

The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford in Moscow writes:

There was such a fuss over the winner of The Voice Kids, Channel One was compelled to act.

Clearly this is just a TV show. But to some it reflects a wider, unpleasant reality: using money and status to sway a vote. People have shrugged that off for years in politics. But the idea that dirty practices tainted a children’s talent contest has angered them.

Mikella wasn’t awful. But the scale of her victory was distinctly fishy. Her pop-star mum, Alsou, had called openly for support: she has more than two million Instagram followers.

Reports of factory workers being paid to vote added to the sense of scandal. Now that the result’s been annulled, viewers have welcomed a “triumph for justice”.

“It’s a surprise for our country, and a nice one, that they listened to the people,” one woman tweeted.

Another user pointed out a “magic coincidence”. Just as the skulduggery in the TV poll was revealed, President Vladimir Putin called for another scandal – protests in Yekaterinburg over plans to build a church – to be resolved. How? Through a vote.

Group-IB is an official partner of Interpol and Europol. Responding to the complaints, Channel One asked Group-IB to inspect its voting technology, which was managed by a company called SMS-servisy.

A full report on the scam is to be issued later this month, Channel One says.

Channel One said “the goal of this audit was not to put the blame on anyone but to re-evaluate the data received during the voting”.

The Voice Kids “is all about giving a positive experience to each participant”, the statement said.

Channel One plans to celebrate “all the kids’ remarkable talent” with a special one-off show on 24 May, “in which all the season finalists and the semi-finalists will perform”, it said.

A new voting mechanism will be in place before the next season of the talent show, the statement added.

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