U.S. Markets closed

The Russian Government Runs a Troll Agency to Flood the Internet With Propaganda

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)

Here’s one way to win the adoration of the Internet: launch an entire agency dedicated to making you look good.

This, according to a fascinating report in The Guardian, is a method that the pectoral stunt double and Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted in an attempt to sway the hearts and minds of his countryfolk.

The Kremlin allegedly runs a troll agency in a nondescript building in St. Petersburg, employing hundreds of paid bloggers and commenters to mock Western leaders like President Barack Obama and spread pro-Russian sentiment — especially regarding the country’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

Per the report, which details discussions from two former employees of the agency:

“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.”

Workers were reportedly paid about $750 a month under the table. The only contract they signed was a nondisclosure agreement. 

Typically, the responsibilities were split into two areas. The first required workers to write a number of harmless articles, typical Internet fodder about famous European monuments or cake recipes. Occasionally, they’d be required to slip in an ideologically directed post — for instance, something arguing that the Kiev government is fascist. 

The other group was directed to flood online forums and comment sections with memes or links that depicted the Russian government as superior and effective. In some cases, commenters even directed their campaigns toward comments sections of CNN, The New York Times, and The Guardian itself. They often drew from an archive of memes that depicted world leaders in photoshopped scenarios with Russian-language speech bubbles.

In this meme made from an AFP photo of Barack Obama and President-elect Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine in Warsaw, the speech bubble roughly translates to “Let’s go to the bedroom and work on your independence.” (Via)

Putin’s online strategy is not unlike that of the Islamic State, which — as I reported earlier this year — directs its followers to constantly post links, tweets, Facebook posts, and other pro-jihadist content as a method of furthering the organization’s cause. Together, this digital army can generate up to 90,000 tweets and other social media interactions a day.

Though the Kremlin’s digital initiative may be somewhat transparent to younger generations, some worry that less-trained eyes may not be able to recognize propaganda as easily. 

“People of my generation who grew up with the internet can perhaps spot the troll comments easily,” Andrei Soshnikov, a St. Petersburg journalist who infiltrated the troll agency two years ago, told The Guardian. “But for the older generation, people who are used to television and are just getting online, they look at all these forums and networks, and it turns out that everyone else out there is even more radical than they are, than their neighbours are.”

Read more details on Putin’s disturbing troll agency over at The Guardian.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.