Russia: Troll factory propaganda

9. July 2015

Ludmila Savchuk after the court hearing against the ‘Troll factory’ in St. Petersburg | © Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

The story of the “Internet Research” agency ‒ better known as ‘Kremlin troll factory’ has been unfolding in Russia for over a year ‒ it started with a post on VK.com (‘Russian facebook’), where a political activist wrote about a suspicious company hiring ‘internet operators’ to write blog posts and comments on hot political topics. It was this post that prompted Andrei Soshnikov, a journalist from St. Petersburg, to infiltrate the company for a day. They were ready to hire anybody, and have very clearly explained themselves on his job interview: “Have you seen paid reviews in online shops? Say, for electric appliances, those that say that one particular drier is better than the other one? What we’re doing is basically the same, but for politicians’.

“Have you seen paid reviews in online shops? Say, for electric appliances, those that say that one particular drier is better than the other one? What we’re doing is basically the same, but for politicians’.

Soshnikov worked one day in a dimly lit basement of a nice house on the outskirts of St. Petersburg ‒ and met another undercover journalist from ‘Novaya Gazeta’. ‘We could barely contain our laughter, since we both knew what we were doing there’ ‒ laughs Andrei. Both published their articles about the ‘troll factory’ that published multiple articles against the Wetern politics and in support of Vladimir Putin . But the topic didn’t make too much of a splash at the time.

The situation changed this year, when Ludmila Savchuk, an activist from Pushkin (a small town just near St. Petersburg), infiltrated the ‘troll factory’ and worked there more than 2 months. Before applying to work for the agency, she has deleted all her activism history from the social media. But her new employers didn’t even google her name, ‒ suggests a journalist who interviewed her for ‘the Village’ ‒ because if they did, they would clearly see that she didn’t even closely resemble the candidates they were looking for. At 34, she had a history of campaigning for environmental issues in her local community, and even taking part in municipal elections as an independent candidate.

On the 2d of January 2015, Ludmila started working for the farm. She worked from 9am to 9pm for 2 days in a row, and then had 2 days off. Coming late, even by 5 minutes, was not tolerated, and would result in a 500RUR (~9€ ) fine. Making a small ‘mistake’ in a blog post or comment would lead to loosing 30 to 50% of the salary, and making several mistakes in a row would lead to immediate firing.

‘The atmosphere is very unpleasant ‒ imagine one adult person scolding other adult person for writing something in blog posts or comments, and that second adult then running to cry in a toilet,” ‒ remembers Ludmila.

‘They were very keen on hierarchy, too, ‒ she told in a video presentation, ‒ for example, every floor has a coffee machine, but one of them is reserved for the management, everybody was strictly warned against using it, and I saw a manager yelling at an employee for getting coffee from that ‘special machine’

Ludmila specialised on LiveJournal, and wrote for several blogs ‒ two most popular ones were of a fortune teller Cantadora First, who mostly wrote about tarot cards and star signs, but would occasionally have ‘bad dreams’ about Europe or the US, and a retired military man, who wrote a lot about handicraft, but sometimes took a break to write an angry post about Ukraine. Every day, she needed to produce no less than 15 posts. Sometimes she barely had time to get a lunch. Before posting, every bit of text was meticulously checked by an ‘editor’, who deleted everything that didn’t correspond with the day’s instructions. Mentioning any problems, even obvious ones, like food getting more expensive, was strictly forbidden ‒ ‘Unless these were the problems that were already brilliantly solved by Putin or Shoigu (Defence Minister)’.

Mentioning any problems, even obvious ones, like food getting more expensive, was strictly forbidden

Problems with the Russian language

A ‘romantic’ troll post/ Infopeace

Every paid blogger was instructed to ‘keep a human image’ ‒ most blog posts would contain life stories or photos (also written according to pre-designed tasks), only occasionally interchanged with bits of propaganda. Sometimes the propaganda would be masked more subtly ‒ like it was in the case of this young girl asking her internet friends to help her get in touch with a handsome guy in a military uniform she saw on the train the other day. If one looks closer, however, one can see that the post contains all the necessary keywords and tags, as well as a good amount of compliments to the Russian army. The amount of hashtags, the unusual popularity of a new blog, the language (similar to that of a newspaper article) ‒ all points out to the fact that the blog is written by a ‘toll factory’ employee.

Most of the trolls were not who one could call well-educated people ‒ they often couldn’t write in proper Russian, and had a hard time understanding the political articles sent to them by their supervisors. To solve those problems, the ‘factory’ hired a Russian teacher ‒ ‘he would print out the most poorly written posts and sigh sadly’ ‒ remembers Savchuk. To solve the lack of education, the trolls would receive short documents explaining the latest news they were supposed to comment ‒ the primary source of these documents being websites like ‘Russia Today’.

Windows and blinds were to be kept constantly shut, and there were cameras in every room.

Another characteristic trait of the ‘troll factory’ was its tight security ‒ the new employees were asked to sign a bogus ‘nondisclosure act’ on their first day. Windows and blinds were to be kept constantly shut, and there were cameras in every room. The use of computers was strictly regulated, and constantly changed ‒ at some point, Savchuk couldn’t use her personal email, or flash drives. Mr Soshnikov is also sure that it was not a problem for the ‘factory’ managers to track down other people’s mobile phone calls ‒ he strongly advised Ludmila not to call journalists from her own number. He is surprised, therefore, that they didn’t out Savchuk as a ‘mole’ when she was filming the factory from the inside long before he published his article.

Many employees couldn’t last long on the ‘factory’ ‒ the gruelling 12-hour shifts made them leave after several weeks. But with enough energy, one could quite easily make a career in the farm. Both Savchuk and Soshnikov have seen speculations that there is another, smaller office in St. Petersburg, for more ‘elite’ trolls. Mr Soshnikov suggests that they can, for example, pretend to be opposition supporters, and ‘troll’ prominent opposition bloggers online.

Most people working in the farm do it simply for money ‒ but there are a few who genuinely believe in what they are doing. Ms Savchuk remembers one man, who genuinely hated all Ukrainians, and was happy to spill his hatred out into the comments. After a few days of writing blogs, she noticed, the trolls would soon stop caring about the content, and only focus on their posts’ SEO. They would keep their finding secret, and even stop talking to their colleagues, afraid to sharing a ‘professional secret’.

Troll factory: St. Peterburg, Savushkina, 55

This constant silence, together with the hierarchy, fines, and long shifts, contributed to a very heavy atmosphere in the building. The tensions grew in March, after Soshnikov published his article, which contained documents leaked by Savchuk ‒ lists of keywords and instructions to bloggers, examples of comments, and an ‘internet slang dictionary’. ‘A girl opposite me panicked and cried: ‘oh no, look, we’ve been outed’’ ‒ remembers Ms Savchuk in an interview to ‘The Village’.

‘Before the article was published, I look all the valuable things, like my shoes, out of the office, and on the day it came out, I sat there, drinking sedatives, pretending to work, waiting for somebody to come for me. Nothing happened till lunch, when I was called into the manager’s office. My friends helped me a lot ‒ and the sedatives, of course ‒ so I kept perfectly calm, and simply denied everything. They yelled at me… but once I left the office, I knew I had to run. So I grabbed the bag with all my stuff, jumped into my boots, and ran out of the building’.

The longer Ms Savchuk worked on the ‘factory’, the worse she felt. The armies of trolls could be used to stamp out any activism online. They appear on local forums and insult the people campaigning for parks and benches. Some of them work for developers who buy land in the city, and some ‒ for local MPs, praising or smearing them… it spreads like a disease.

Constant calls and internet attacks

The revelations of Ms Savchuk, and her lawsuit of the factory have cause a veritable storm in the Russian media. It has also affected Ludmila’s life ‒ both her and her friends and relatives are now constantly attacked online. They receive calls from people pretending to be journalists, or people offering some strange services, which are clearly recorded. ‘I have, by now, heard so much about Prigozhin (the owner of the ‘factory’, according to the leaks), that I am afraid to go about my business. They already published a bogus article about Adrian Chen from the NYT Magazine, where they staged his meeting with a neo-nazi.’ Mr Soshnikov, on the other hand, didn’t get anything like that. He thinks that the trolls have’ probably, been instructed not to attack Russian journalists for now.

The lawsuit against the ‘factory’ is based on the breach of the Russian labour law: Ms Savchuk was not officially employed by the agency, and received her salary illegally. Her lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, head of the ‘Team-29’ that specialises on information freedom ‒ sees ‘bringing trolls out into the light’ as their main goal. ‘Of course, our lawsuit is about the labour laws, but what we really want to do is to expose this organisation to the public, because trolls cannot operate in a transparent space’. Mr Pavlov sees inspiration in the Al Capone case ‒ who was arrested for tax evasion, but not his gangster activity. ‘If they are such a big organisation, and don’t legally employ their workers, then it means that they are not paying their taxes, either. And what about sanitary, or fire safety regulations?’ ‒ comments the lawyer. On the last hearing on the 2d of July, the agency’s representative showed employment documents of Ms Savchuk. Both were dated by the 2d of July. She has also received the money she requested ‒ but asked for more documents, such as job description and shift schedule. The court has scheduled another hearing for August the 5th.

Now I am also experiencing the love of people who do that for money’.

In the meantime, the trolls are spreading pictures with Savchuk across the internet. ‘They’ve drawn me with huge breasts and huge guns ‒ laughs Ludmila ‒ and now I think I can understand how Putin feels. Now I am also experiencing the love of people who do that for money’.

Originally published in German at www.zeit.de on July 9, 2015.