Russia's troll factory

An outstanding expose of Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg, Russia-based army of trolls for hire who post pro-Kremlin messages to comment forums all day.

It's a distressingly widespread phenomenon. China's got the Fifty-Cent Army; the USA has its Persona Management creeps, but IRA is a among the most prolific groups of paid astroturfers/trolls operating online, and were a major force in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They also appear to be the entity behind the recent ISIS Louisiana chemical factory bombing hoax.

Lots of people troll, but IRA's management have elevated trolling to a science, running it like any other metrics-obsessed content-farm. They're well-paid, but work gruelling, 12-hour days. Most interesting of all, Adrian Chen, who wrote the story, became the center of a trolling/propaganda campaign that he was set up for while he was on the story.

Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.

Savchuk told me she shared an office with about a half-dozen teammates. It was smaller than most, because she worked in the elite Special Projects department. While other workers churned out blandly pro-Kremlin comments, her department created appealing online characters who were supposed to stand out from the horde. Savchuk posed as three of these creations, running a blog for each one on LiveJournal. One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.

The Agency [Adrian Chen/NYT]

Notable Replies

  1. Is troll really the right word? These guys seem more like government sockpuppets.

  2. "Troll" is one of the few netspeak words to really make the jump to mainstream usage. so it's just lost any of the specificity that it once had. Griefing, flaming, sockpuppeting, astroturfing and the like all get lumped under one heading that means "Undesirable online behaviour". It's like the difference between hacking and cracking- the specific terms just didn't get through to the general population.

    Getting back to the article, it's fairly obvious that this has been going on for years by all sides. And it isn't really difficult to see why. During the cold war any political group was liable to get monitored and infiltrated, the net just gives the same people a wider reach. I wonder how often we've actually had a flock of wolves situation without knowing it.

  3. They've been here before. I think for a post about Pussy Riot at least, but I'm too lazy to type words in a search box and read. They seemed pretty obvious, but here on BB we're like f-ing bloodhounds for that shit.

  4. LDoBe says:

    Sometimes I worry about the BBS's ingroup bias. There's a discussion over here about what we can do to prevent single-topic drivebys and it feels awfully... I don't know... Governmental.

    Anyway, I try to remember that I got my start here as a person posting a very unpopular (and frankly thoughtless) opinion. I got the snot kicked out of me by several regulars, but I wasn't harped on continuously.

    I was able to come back, make counter points, and eventually I've made a complete 180 on my views regarding that topic. I was forced to think and spend time and effort doing research and talking with people IRL if I wanted to lock horns here and be respected. And eventually, it came down to a choice of adhering to previously held beliefs and dogma, or maintaining my intellectual honesty and integrity, so I changed my mind, since that was the evidence and logic dictated.

    TL;DR, I'll tear into any single-issue troll, especially for my pet-topics. But I do try to keep in mind they're people, and that I had humble beginnings, so I don't try to write them off.

  5. Here's what most worries me:

    Then there were the pictures from the Ukrainian revolution, which focused almost exclusively on the Right Sector, a small group of violent, right-wing, anti-Russian protesters with a fondness for black balaclavas. Russian authorities have seized upon Right Sector to paint the entire revolution, backed by a huge swath of Ukrainian society, as orchestrated by neo-fascist thugs.

    I've seen a fair number of complaints that the role of fascists in the Ukrainian revolution is being enormously understated in the US media. So on reading this in the article, I'm left wondering whether I've fallen for the propaganda, or whether Chen himself is pushing propaganda.

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