The Internet troll factory in St. Petersburg was a surprise to Americans during the 2016 election. In Russia, it was an open secret from its very inception.
Payments Weekly and Free Food!!!
In August 2013, an intriguing posting for jobs in St. Petersburg, Russia appeared on social networks:
“Internet operators wanted! Work in a chic office in OLGINO!!!! (m. Old Village), payment 25,960 rubles per month. Objective: posting comments on specialized Internet sites, writing thematic posts, blogs, social networks. Screenshot reports. The work schedule is selected individually <….> Payment is weekly, 1,180 per shift (from 8:00 to 16:00, from 10:30 to 18:30, from 14:00 to 22:00). PAYMENTS WEEKLY AND FREE FOOD !!! Official or contractual employment (optional). Training offered! ”
Novaya Gazeta, the fiercely independent Russian newspaper, sent one of its correspondents to find out what it was all about.
Their queries took them to an address in Olgino, a historical neighborhood in St. Petersburg.
The Novaya Gazeta reporters were told they would be required to write 100 comments a day on specified articles. As an example, the reporters were told to write that the recently concluded G-20 summit in St. Petersburg was a great honor for Russia.
The goal was to increase the visibility of these articles in the same way that writing reviews on Amazon boosted product sales, the reporters were told. Robots could do the job, but the sites often blocked them so it was decided to have humans do the work.
Within a few years it would be wreaking havoc in elections around the world, but even in its early days, the group had bigger plans.
It was in the process of recruiting people for an even bigger project that would begin in 2014.
The name of the business was the Internet Research Agency.
The Novaya Gazeta reporters were able to figure out who was behind the Internet Research Agency almost immediately because they recognized a former colleague.
Her name was Maria Kuprashevich (Марию Купрашевич).
The reporters knew Kuprashevich because she had been sent undercover to work in the advertising department at their newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
In fact, Kuprashevich worked in the PR department of Concord Catering, a company owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.” Novaya Gazeta dubbed her “Masha Hari” after the famous woman who spied for Germany during World War I.
Prigozhin was a convicted criminal whose connections ran all the way to the top chain of Russian command. Prigozhin had been found guilty of robbery and was a member of an organized crime group that practiced fraud and involved “minors in prostitution,” as I wrote in Trump/Russia:
He served nine years in prison and was released in 1990, opening a hot dog stand as the Soviet Union collapsed around him. He then managed a chain of grocery stores and in 1997 opened a restaurant in an old ship called New Island that became one of St. Petersburg’s hottest restaurants. And it was through that restaurant that Prigozhin not only became wealthy, but fell into Putin’s inner circle.
Russian president Vladimir Putin dined at New Island with French president Jacques Chirac in the summer of 2001. Prigozhin personally served the two heads of state. Putin not only became a regular at New Island, but Prigozhin became the Russian president’s favored caterer, which earned him his derisive nickname. He was awarded lucrative contracts to provide lunches to Moscow schoolchildren and feed Russian soldiers.
In return, the Kremlin called on him to perform jobs that it did not want attributed to the state.
The first Western journalist to take note of the Internet Research Agency was Max Seddon, then writing for Buzzfeed (now with The Financial Times).
Seddon got hold of internal organization documents posted online by anonymous hackers.
Seddon’s June 2014 story in Buzzfeed showed that the organization was reaching far beyond Russia’s borders. In the internal documents were guidelines on posting in the comments sections of Fox News, The Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily.
Few, however, were paying attention.
By the time Seddon’s story ran, the Internet Research Agency had upgraded to a four-story office building on Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg and the troll factory was in full operation.
IRA employees known as “specialists” were expected to create false online personas on these sites known as “sock puppet” accounts complete with fake names and photos.
Specialists had to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they were expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the were expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.
“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 former employee told The Guardian of London. For this, she was paid 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. English-language trolls could earn up to $1,000 a month.
Working conditions were miserable. Employees were fined for being a few minutes late or not reaching the required number of posts each day. Editors imposed fines if they found posts had been cut and pasted or were ideologically irrelevant.
Another cache of internal documents smuggled out by IRA employees and published by the St. Petersburg publication Moi Region included the following job description:
TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.Cited in Information Wars by Richard Stengel
The organization’s paid trolls were being given specific themes to write about that included the United States.
US policies are aimed at achieving a unipolar world. They are ready to destroy any country to achieve their goal.
The EU and NATO act on the orders of the United States. Because of this, Europe cannot establish relations with Russia.
The internal problems of the United States are violence, terrorism, obesity—but they try to teach the whole world how to live!
The only thing America ever gave the world was Coca-Cola and that turned out to be poison.Stengel, Information Wars
Employees told the Russian news site MR-7 that training was provided by a “bearded, intelligent man” who printed out particularly illiterate posts, passed them around and sighed.
Another journalist even managed to film surreptitiously inside the IRA, which looks like any modern office anywhere:
A Troll Abroad
What Seddon other Russian journalists had caught a glimpse of was a much larger story that would only become clear when Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the Internet Research Agency and its top officials.
According to the special counsel’s indictment, the Internet Research Agency was already planning on interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election by May 2014.
The Internet Research Agency had formed a department that was called, among other things, the “translator project.” Its stated goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
The translator project focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Two employees traveled to the United States to “gather intelligence” in June 2014, according to an indictment filed by the special counsel’s office. Aleksandra Krylova, the organization’s third-highest ranking employee, and Anna Bogacheva, director of the translator project’s data analysis group, made stops in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.
Prior to the trip, the two women had worked with their colleagues to plan itineraries and purchase equipment, including “cameras, SIM cards, and drop phones.” They also worked on various “evacuation scenarios” and other security measures for their trip.
Another employee traveled to Atlanta, Georgia in November 2014.
A memo distributed inside troll factory shows how they had used the intelligence gathered from the U.S. trip to formulate angles of attack that were sure to produce a deliberate provocation:
The ongoing series of accidents in the United States, caused by the lack of American authorities concern for the safety of their citizens.
We are forming a negative post condemning the policy of the American authorities.
In Texas, a three-year-old boy died by accidentally shooting himself with a pistol found in a bag.
In Houston, a three-year-old boy found a loaded pistol in his mother’s bag and accidentally shot himself in the head. The child was taken to the hospital by helicopter, but it was not possible to save his life.
According to police, the woman left an open bag with weapons on a shelf and for several minutes went into another room. The child somehow took out a bag and found a gun. So far, no charges have been brought in this case, TASS reports.
In the United States, several similar tragedies have recently occurred. So, in January, in the state of Florida, a two-year-old child died by shooting himself in the chest with a pistol, which he found in the interior of the parent’s car. And a few days earlier in Missouri, a five-year-old boy shot his nine-month-old brother from a revolver found at home.
The irresponsibility of the American authorities, not paying attention to such incidents, leads to accidents. The weapons that every US citizen has (practically) are in the public domain and, as a result, fall into the hands of children.
Instead of protecting the country’s citizens from weapons and drugs, US authorities continue to develop aggression around the world, not paying attention to what is happening inside the country.
A Terrorist Attack in Louisiana?
On September 11, 2014, residents in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana got a disturbing text message: “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM. Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”
Twitter accounts were lighting up with reports of an explosion at a Columbia Chemicals plant.
There was even a screenshot of what looked like CNN’s home page, with the plant explosion leading the news.
There was a Wikipedia page, a YouTube video of a man showing his TV screen with masked ISIS fighters next to footage of an explosion. But if anybody bothered to check, there was no explosion; the CNN page, the Wikipedia page, the YouTube video were all fakes.
As Adrian Chen revealed in his incredible story in The New York Times Magazine it was a hoax pulled off by the Internet Research Agency.
This was a modern twist on an old spy game, one that was very familiar to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the World War II predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, as I wrote in Trump/Russia:
The OSS didn’t have the benefit of social media, but the operatives in its Morale Operations branch used what they called “rumors” as weapons of war against Nazi Germany. According to a now-declassified 1943 field manual, the OSS developed a special class of gossip called “subversive rumors.”
This form of scuttlebutt could be used “to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources” and “to create division among racial, political, [and] religious” groups within a country. Subversive rumors could be used to “create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports.” The OSS believed that the best fake gossip was simple, plausible, and vivid, the more “strong emotional content” the better. “Rarely can [rumors] by themselves change basic attitudes,” the OSS field manual declared in highlighting the limits of their new word-of-mouth weapon. “Their function is to confirm suspicions and beliefs already latent; to give sense and direction to fears, resentments, or hopes that have been built up by more materialistic causes; to tip the balance when public opinion is in a precarious state.”
The Soviet KGB also understood the nature of rumors. The KGB’s Service A was the unit tasked with running aktivnye meropriiatiia—covert “active measures” designed to sow distrust against the West. One example included developing fraudulent info about FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Another was Operation Infektion, a KGB-planted rumor that the AIDS virus had escaped from a biological weapons lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Thousands of people were involved in the active measures operations, which were integrated into the whole of the Soviet government, and they surely would have been familiar to Vladimir Putin, who was just beginning his KGB career in 1980, a time when the CIA estimated that the annual cost of the Soviet Union’s active measures program was no less than $3 billion a year. In the 1990s, the United States asked Russia to stop these rumor campaigns, but Sergei Tretyakov, a high-ranking Russian spy who defected to the United States in 2000, said nothing changed. “Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.,” Tretyakov said in a 2008 book, Comrade J. “Let me repeat this. Russia is doing everything it can today to undermine and embarrass the U.S.”
What the Internet Research Agency really represented was a modern Russian version of the old OSS rumor factory and KGB active measures division. Social media gave the St. Petersburg operatives a power the likes of which neither the OSS nor the KGB could have imagined. The OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors; the KGB planted the AIDS rumor in a newspaper in India. The modern influence operative didn’t have to leave his or her desk in St. Petersburg. In the hands of a spy, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were machines for the rapid transmission of rumors. But one needed to flip through the musty pages of the OSS field manual to see how well their creed holds up today, and just how accurately the St. Petersburg troll factory was able to wreak havoc on the American public during the 2016 presidential election.
In February 2016, an outline of themes for future content was circulating inside the Internet Research Agency. The organization’s “specialists” were instructed to post content that focused on “politics in the USA” and to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”
The Internet Research Agency’s sock puppet accounts would produce pro-Trump social media postings, pro-Trump Twitter accounts, pro-Trump rallies, pro-Trump political ads.
By September, the IRA was spending $1.25 million a month on operations on “Project Lakhta,” which involved Russian domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences in the United States and elsewhere.
More than 80 people were working in the American part of the translator project by July 2016 and employees were posting more than 1,000 pieces of content per week, reaching between 20 and 30 million people in the month of September alone.
- When you hear of foreign actors making big plans to influence the West, believe them. Information operations are cheap, and they work.
- It’s fairly easy to figure out who is behind these operations, but in Russia it doesn’t matter which oligarch is behind it. They are proxies for the Kremlin.
- Russian information operations test out strategies and themes and spend years refining them.
- Read critically. Verify everything before you trust it.