Hundreds of people work 12-hour shifts day and night at the Internet Research Agency, an unassuming building in St. Petersburg, Russia. But contrary to its name, more fabrication than research happens there — thousands of fake Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts have been created in a once-secret attempt to sway public opinion against the West.
By now, this den of trolls has long been in the headlines. One journalist mapped its Twitter-bots, while another discovered other potential “factories” by studying Google search terms by geographic location. A third reporter showed how trolls linked to the agency created elaborate online hoaxes about supposed chemical spills, outbreaks of Ebola and murders in the United States. The St. Petersburg agency was recently sued by a former employee for one ruble — a symbolic move to highlight the operation’s existence.
The round-the-clock operation is financed through a holding company headed by President Vladimir Putin’s “personal chef,” Evgeny Prigozhin, reports Radio Liberty. What was the idea behind it?
“The main problem is that in the foreign Internet community, the ratio of supporters and opponents of Russia is about 20/80 respectively,” one project leader writes in a leaked document reported in June 2014 by BuzzFeed.
Some trolls have come forward to tell all. Former professional troll Marat Burkhard, who left Internet Research Agency of his own accord, told Radio Liberty about his experience. He described how the building’s curtains are drawn if a journalist shows up. Employees are forbidden from going out on the street.
Any employee who arrives a minute late faces a 500 ruble fine (about US $9) . “You just have to sit there and type and type, endlessly,” Burkhard said.
Here’s more of what Burkhard and other former trolls said:
Some of the agency’s trolls are “fanatics,” but most “are just young people who want to make money. They’re so politically illiterate that Putin, Obama … they don’t know the difference,” said Burkhard.
The jobs they apply for often sound innocent, with titles such as social media specialists, Internet operators and copywriters.
“First they make you write about something neutral — Vegetarianism: Pros and Cons,” Burkhard said. Later, “to plump up the political content, they send in a guy to talk about the topic of the day, so that at least the employees have a little background on the topic. But the guy himself has an extremely low level of understanding, so it all looks completely absurd.”
Short exams test employees’ beliefs, he said. “Anyone who makes a couple of mistakes has to retake it,” and those who continue to underperform get fired.
Technique: ‘Villain, picture, link’
According to the BBC, in social media accounts, the trolls often pose as housewives and “disappointed U.S. citizens.” But the deception doesn’t stop there. Burkhard said his department, which commented on news in Russian community forums, specialized in creating the illusion of conversation.
“We did it by dividing into teams of three,” he said. “One of us would be the ‘villain,’ the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we’re doing. The other two enter into a debate with him — ‘No, you’re not right; everything here is totally correct.’ One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument. You see? Villain, picture, link.”
This technique fits into a broader strategy of influencing people. The Kremlin “is used to playing all sides,” writes policy expert Andrew Wilson. “In Russia, the Kremlin sought to direct all the pieces on the political chess board; both sides — black and white. And, to undermine the metaphor of how chess is actually played, it also policed the edge of the board and determined who could actually play.”
“Putin is great,” “Ukrainians are fascists,” and “Europe is decadent” were the main messages Lyudmila Savchuk told Agence France Presse that she was instructed to spread on Internet forums. “Our job was to write in a pro-government way, to interpret all events in a way that glorifies the government’s politics and Putin personally.”
Savchuk sued the secretive agency for one ruble to draw attention to its practices. “I want to get it closed down,” she told the Telegraph. “These people are using propaganda to destroy objectivity and make people doubt the motives of any civil protest. Worst of all, they’re doing it by pretending to be us, the citizens of Russia.” Though a court awarded her the symbolic ruble, the agency continues to operate.
Multiple accounts, big quotas
Burkhard said he had to write at least one comment of 200 characters or more about every five minutes, or 135 comments in a 12-hour shift. Each post needed to include precise keywords and tags for search engines.
Leaked documents reveal other requirements: Trolls should post on news articles 50 times in an average workday. Each blogger should maintain six Facebook accounts, publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the worker’s first month, he or she should have 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers should manage 10 accounts and tweet 50 times a day.
A ‘troll army’
Among the Internet Research Agency’s departments — which include news, video, “demotivators” and community forums that Burkhard said never fraternize — the English-speaking division plays a special role. People there will “bombard the websites of CNN and the BBC. They have their own types of targets — the New York Times,” he said.
Efforts to create a million-dollar “troll army” have been revealed by BuzzFeed and the press at large. The torrent of trolls has caused many Russian newspapers and foreign-language outlets reporting on Russian events to close their comments sections.
While fostering dissent overseas through its onslaught of trolls, Russia is taking steps to stifle Internet freedom in its own country. In 2014, the New York Times reported that the Kremlin has blocked the websites of opposition leaders.
Putin made his skepticism of the Internet known in 2014 when he called it a “CIA project,” a comment the Moscow Times picked up on. (The inventor of the World Wide Web corrected him in a Reuters article.)
“The Internet has become the main threat — a sphere that isn’t controlled by the Kremlin,” human rights advocate Pavel Chikov told BuzzFeed. “That’s why they’re going after it.”