Russian Internet users, apparently manipulated by the Kremlin, began conspicuously surfacing online after Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. These paid “trolls” work all day to flood online articles and social media with praises towards Russian President Vladimir Putin and condemnation of the West.
While the topic has returned to public consciousness due to a New York Times article this week, Shaun Walker at The Guardian tracked them down in April. He found the office building for the company known as Internet Research at Savushkina Street. Two workers told Walker “they were employed unofficially and paid cash-in-hand.” The working conditions are absolutely dreadful:
They painted a picture of a work environment that was humourless and draconian, with fines for being a few minutes late or not reaching the required number of posts each day. Trolls worked in rooms of about 20 people, each controlled by three editors, who would check posts and impose fines if they found the words had been cut and pasted, or were ideologically deviant.
“We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,” one anonymous source told Walker.
In between posts about castles in Europe and dating, she penned blog posts about the fascist government in Ukraine or corrupt opposition leaders in Russia. The bosses assigned the political posts while the troll developed their own non-political posts.
“The scariest thing is when you talk to your friends and they are repeating the same things you saw in the technical tasks, and you realise that all this is having an effect,” she said.
Marat, another worker, showed Walker a few of these tasks sheets. Some included wisecracks towards American officials, while others needed to praise a Russian-made smartphone. The business developed photoshop images that the trolls can easily paste on the sites. “Many of them have obvious racist or homophobic overtones… Barack Obama eating a banana or depicted as a monkey.”
On June 1, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty spoke with Lyudmila Savchuk, who worked at the troll factory for two months. Savchuk claims “Internet Research withheld details of her employment and firing after she tried to blow the whistle on its practices.” In her lawsuit, Savchuk alleges “that her former employer failed to provide any contract or paperwork supporting her hiring and dismissal.”
Adrian Chen investigated Internet Research for The New York Times. He spoke to Savchuk, but his interaction with Katarina Aistova, who worked in the English-speaking department, proves the depth of deceit within the organization. She only agreed to meet with Chen if her brother could tag along for protection. Nazi tattoos covered his body while his shirt displayed the insignia of the “SS Totenkopf division, which administered the Nazi concentration camps.” The conversation with Aistova appeared polite. She told Chen she believes Putin is right with east Ukraine, but “claimed to harbor no ill will toward the United States.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of her favorite films. At the end, she shook his hand and wished him luck on his story.
However, when he returned to St. Petersburg, he found that Federal News Agency (FAN) replaced Internet Research in the building. Other employees told Chen they believe FAN was part of Internet Research. He met with editor-in-chief Evgeny Zubarev, who denied accusations the agency only spouted Kremlin propaganda and said it was all part of a smear campaign.
After Chen left St. Petersburg, FAN published an article that associated him with Nazis. The article, “What Does a New York Times Journalist Have in Common With a Nazi From St. Petersburg?” connected him with Aistova’s alleged brother:
The story detailed a mysterious meeting in St. Petersburg between a New York Times journalist — me — and a neo-Nazi. Its lead image was a photo of a skinhead giving an enthusiastic Nazi salute. But it was not just any skinhead. It was the skinhead whom Katarina Aistova brought to our meeting and introduced to me as her brother. As I learned from reading the article, Aistova’s “brother” was in fact a notorious neo-Nazi named Alexei Maximov.
The article explained that Maximov, who goes by the nickname Fly, is a member of Totenkopf, a prominent skinhead group in St. Petersburg. He reportedly served nine years in prison for stabbing a man to death. Just a month before I met him, Maximov again made headlines when, during an investigation into beatings of immigrants around St. Petersburg, the police found weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia in his apartment.
The author never once mentioned Aistova or Internet Research but claimed Chen met with the Nazi to create “a provocation against Russia” because he was “very keenly interested in sentiment among Russian nationalists.” The story gained traction on pro-Kremlin blogs, including People’s News, which sets up shop in the same office building as FAN and Internet Research. But as it rolled from site to site it gained more false information. Next thing Chen knew, authors claimed he worked with the CIA or NSA.
Chen reached out to Andrei Soshnikov, the journalist who first spoke to Savchuk:
A few days later, Soshnikov chatted with me on Skype. “Did you see an article about you on FAN?” he asked. “They know you are going to publish a loud article, so they are trying to make you look stupid in front of the Russian audience.”
I explained the setup, and as I did I began to feel a nagging paranoia. The more I explained, the more absurd my own words seemed — the more they seemed like exactly the sort of elaborate alibi a C.I.A. agent might concoct once his cover was blown. The trolls had done the only thing they knew how to do, but this time they had done it well. They had gotten into my head.
The Guardian’s 40,000 moderators noticed a troll campaign in May 2014. The moderators first became suspicious after a reader emailed them on March 6:
“In the past weeks [I] have become incredibly frustrated and disillusioned by your inability to effectively police the waves of Nashibot trolls who’ve been relentlessly posting pro-Putin propaganda in the comments on Ukraine v Russia coverage.
“… the quantity of pro-Kremlin trolling on this topic … which has been documented extensively since 2012 as a real and insidious threat to online communities of idea and debate, has rendered commenting on these articles all but meaningless, and a worthless exercise in futility and frustration for anyone not already being mind-controlled by the Kremlin.”
Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon received documents from a Russian hacker that show plans to flood and spam comment sections at FOX, Politico, and even WorldNetDaily. Other sources told Seddon that Internet Research is only one company the Kremlin employs to troll the Internet.