How Russian investigative journalists working for precarious free press outlets exposed the "troll factory"

St Petersburg's Internet Research Agency -- AKA "The Troll Factory" -- is in the news since Robert Mueller indicted 13 of its employees, but it first came to public attention in 2013, when investigative reporters working for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed that the agency was working to manipulate Russian public opinion in favor of Putin and the Kremlin and against opposition politicians by flooding Russian online discussions with thousands of "patriotic" posts made under a welter of pseudonyms.

The story of Novaya Gazeta's scoop -- and the followup revelations in Russia's precarious independent press -- is quite a tale, where bravery, smarts, and dogged determination uncovers a plot by a seemingly impregnable state to shore up its power.

It started with a whistleblower, Natalya Lvova, who posted the story of her employment at the Troll Factory to the Russian social media platform VK. Reading the post prompted reporters to pose as job applicants at the Troll Factory, going undercover to document its operations in detail.

In addition to revealing the workings of the Factory -- how assignments were given out and evaluated -- the reporters also revealed the targets of the Factory: rubbishing opposition politicians, whipping up patriotic sentiment around the Moscow G20, attacking America and its media, and attacking critics of the Kremlin who posted to message boards. As the Factory grew in stature and importance, it moved into new digs, and hired staff who could post in English and German, and the Factory started to target American media with outrage posts about mass shootings, Obamacare, NSA mass surveillance and police shootings and violence.

They also stepped up their propaganda wars in Russia, trying to spin the 2015 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov as a false-flag operation, using a sock-puppet army to advance the theory that Nemtsov engineered his own shooting.

These ongoing revelations came thanks to other journalists who followed the original investigators' lead, getting jobs in the swelling ranks of the Troll Factory to document its growth. Other journalists worked with whistleblowers who left the Troll Factory disenchanted after soul-deadening work.

Piece by piece, the Troll Factory came into focus. Its ownership was traced back to Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin; this, coupled with the Factory's frequent contracts to directly promote the Kremlin and its policies made it clear that it functioned as a government contractor, or possibly even an arm of the Russian state.

It also became clear that for all the Factory's foreign adventures, its bread and butter is shaping Russian public opinion and neutralizing opposition voices. The Russian style of misinformation is "firehoses of falsehood" -- as I wrote about Christopher Paul's work on Russian propaganda: "having huge numbers of channels at your disposal: fake and real social media accounts, tactical leaks to journalists, state media channels like RT, which are able to convey narrative at higher volume than the counternarrative, which becomes compelling just by dint of being everywhere ('quantity does indeed have a quality all its own')."

In October 2017, Russian investigators did the data-analysis that outed the Factory's most prolific, high-value astroturf accounts, providing the crucial starting point for efforts that have since identified the clusters of Russian propaganda bots on social media.

Russia's independent press operates under constant threat of state intervention -- anything from lawsuits to arrests to disappearances. The Russian journalists who documented this critical weapon of the Russian autocratic state are owed a debt of thanks by Russians and westerners alike, for helping us understand how powerful, corrupt states are shaping public opinion to preserve their privilege.

The story of the Russian “troll factory” is a story of real journalists exposing falsehoods. Russian journalists broke the story of the “troll factory,” and revealed its early workings. They first identified its ownership, and published its most important accounts. They provided the strongest proof that the Kremlin’s own “journalists” are nothing of the sort, but are, in their own eyes, engaged in an information war against the West.

This is a vital point. The trolls and pseudo-journalists who waged a propaganda campaign against the United States were Russians, but so were the journalists who exposed them.

The events of 2014-17 were not a question of Russians against Americans, or Russia against America: they were a story of Russian government outlets, and a “troll factory” whose owner had strong links to the government, attacking government critics both inside the country, and outside.

It is thanks to Russian journalists that we know so much of what went on.

The Russians Who Exposed Russia’s Trolls [Ben Nimmo and Aric Toler/AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab]

(via Global Investigative Journalism Network)