MOSCOW — Russians were caught meddling in the last United States presidential election, and have been accused of trying to influence other ballots, including this month’s elections for the European Parliament.
Now they have been caught red-handed rigging one of their own votes: that of “The Voice Kids,” a popular TV talent show in the country.
On Thursday, Channel One, the state-owned broadcaster, said in a news release that it was canceling the result of the show’s last season, because fan voting in the final round had been manipulated. There had been “massive automated SMS spamming” in favor of one contestant, Group-IB, a cybersecurity firm that had been commissioned to investigate the results, said in its own release.
They did not name the beneficiary of the cheating, but the contest’s winner was 10-year-old Mikella Abramova, the daughter of Alsou, a pop star with over two million followers on Instagram, and Yan Abramov, a wealthy banker.
“Kids should never suffer unfairly due to actions that have occurred outside of their control,” Channel One’s statement said. But what happened “should be the first and last case when someone tried to control the audience’s choice.”
Mikella won the final on Apr. 26 easily, with 145,451 votes. Erzhan Maksim, a boy from Kazakhstan who finished second, received 64,835 votes.
The difference was so wide, Channel One launched an investigation the next day. “Whether this is a consequence of the sincere reaction of the audience or for other reasons — we have to find out,” said Konstantin Ernst, the channel’s CEO, in a statement at the time. “We cannot allow a shadow to be cast on the honesty of ‘The Voice.’ ”
Group-IB’s investigation revealed that over 8,000 text message votes were made by 300 phone numbers that accidentally included a piece of code showing they came from an automated system. Over 30,000 telephone votes also came from automated systems.
A full report on the investigation is not due until the end of the month, but Channel One decided to act immediately. All contestants, including Mikella, who has since turned 11, will be invited to take part in a special concert — “a celebration of all the kids’ remarkable talent — on May 31, Channel One said.
Alsou has yet to comment on the decision to cancel her daughter’s victory. But on May 15, she posted a clip on YouTube of Mikella singing a duet with runner-up Erzhan.
Russian social media reaction to the scandal was a mix of indignation and humor. “If Alsou’s cat had been participating in the competition, he would also have won,” wrote Nelli Romanova on a YouTube clip of Mikella.
Some commenters bitterly noted that the manipulation required financial resources beyond the means of most contestants, though not out of reach for Mikella’s parents. Like the unfolding American scandal of wealthy parents using fraudulent schemes to get their children into elite universities, it seemed like another example of the rich unfairly tilting things ever more sharply in favor of their children.
As some Russians pointed out, this was not solely a Russian issue. “‘We’re not the only one with biased voting,” said Yuri Loza, a Russian singer on Facebook.