The final result of Russia’s version of the popular TV singing talent show, "The Voice Kids," has been cancelled after it was found that thousands of automated calls and text messages were used to rig voting in favor of its 10-year-old winner.
Moscow-based cybersecurity firm Group-IB was brought in to examine the results after complaints were raised over the victory of Mikella Abramova, the daughter of well-known Russian popstar Alsou and millionaire Yan Abramov.
Abramova won the show’s final, broadcasted on April 26, with 56.5% of a phone-in vote. Large numbers of viewers, however, immediately began complaining online and the state Channel 1, which airs the show, noted there had been "anomalies" in the voting. So, it hired Group-IB to investigate.
On Thursday, Group-IB’s researchers said that, after analyzing the voting data, there had been “massive automated sending of SMS messages in favour of one participant.”
Sequential phone numbers were used to make more than 30,000 automated calls into the show’s voting line for the contestant, IB Group wrote in a statement on its website. Another 300 telephone numbers were used to send 8,000 text messages, the statement said, noting that the automated calls and messages were made by so-called 'bots' — software programs that can be directed to repeat tasks over and over.
The findings prompted Channel 1 to announce that it was annulling the results, saying the investigation had confirmed there was "an outside influence" that had affected the outcome.
In a statement on its website, the channel said it would now organize a new “special show” in which all the contestants would compete again on May 24. It emphasized that Group-IB's investigation was only intended to confirm that there had been manipulation, not to assign blame.
“We believe that children should not bear responsibility for actions not undertaken by them,” the statement read.
Group-IB, which is one of Russia's most prominent cybersecurity firms and has partnered with Interpol, said that its analysis was preliminary and that it would complete its full investigation by the end of the month. Channel 1 said it would be taking measures to protect its voting system in the future and that these would be announced before the next season of the show, which will be its seventh.
The revelation has prompted anger in Russia, with some viewers and Russian news outlets laying suspicion on Abramova’s parents despite there being no evidence so far regarding who was behind the vote fraud. Alsou is a popular music star in Russia and performed for the country in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000, where she placed second. Abramov, meanwhile, is a businessman whose holdings include a loans company and some factories, one of which is an arms manufacturing plant, according to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti.
After the announcement, one of the show's hosts Dmitry Nagiev said that it was now important to protect the children taking part.
"Let's not forget that it is only a jolly game of 'who sings best,'" he told the state-funded Russian broadcaster RT. "And as soon as adults interfere with their screwed-up attempts to tinker with it, the game takes on not very pretty forms."