Before Russia's 'troll farm' turned to US, it had a more domestic focus

Though the outfit indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller may now be most famous for targeting US audiences, its original purpose was to sway Russians on domestic issues. And it was well covered by the Russian media.

Mstyslav Chernov/AP
A view of a business center believed to be the location of the new 'troll factory' in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 18. The US government alleges the Internet Research Agency started interfering as early as 2014 in US politics.

For many Americans, last week's indictment of the Russian “troll farm” by special counsel Robert Mueller was the first time a spotlight had been shown on the enterprise that allegedly meddled in US elections.

But in Russia, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), as the organization is best known, has already been in the public eye for five years. And hiding in plain sight, it has received a good deal of critical Russian media attention for much of that time – not as a tool for meddling in US elections, but for doing so domestically.

The IRA is a well-funded “internet marketing” operation that may perform commercial functions, but has become notorious for its political activities. These include loading Russian social media with pro-Kremlin commentary, blogs, postings, and graphic content. Experts believe there are several such operations around Russia, some aimed at regional audiences.

Unlike Soviet times, when operations would have been conducted from a secret facility surrounded by barbed wire, these agencies have no obvious Kremlin fingerprints on them and are mostly staffed by mostly youthful, regular Russian computer geeks. The outsourcing of political agitation to friendly businessmen, who owe the Kremlin favors, appears to be a hallmark of the Vladimir Putin era, most analysts agree.

The IRA appears to be financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a food caterer who became a billionaire thanks to state contracts, also known as “Putin's chef” thanks to his lavish hosting of presidential birthday parties. Why Mr. Prigozhin's outfit decided, probably some time in 2014, to start up an “American department” to create specific English-language content for US social media consumers, appears to remain a mystery, as does its links to the Russian government and security services. Regardless of the IRA's provenance, Russian experts remain dubious about the actual impact of its messaging, even on domestic public opinion.

“I don't doubt that there were also attempts to influence elections in the US. The phrases, approaches, and intonation used in the Russian internet seem very similar to those that were used in US social media,” says Lyudmila Savchuk, a local journalist who infiltrated the IRA for a couple of months in early 2015 with the aim of reporting on its activities. “As to the actual influence of all that, well, it's very difficult to estimate.”

Sharks in cyberspace

Put to work in the Russian department, Ms. Savchuk and scores of other “trolls” would fulfill 12-hour shifts posting on Facebook, VKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook), Twitter, Instagram, and LiveJournal using false identities and with masked IP addresses to meet quotas.

“It's a very big operation. I am sure that the 13 people named in the indictment is far from complete,” she says.

The trolls' main focus would be on current events like the war in Ukraine, the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and other controversial domestic topics. Invariably, they were instructed to adopt a pro-Kremlin tone.

Savchuk was a source for one of the most detailed English-language exposes of the St. Petersburg troll farm, reported for The New York Times Magazine by Adrian Chen almost three years ago. But reporting in independent Russian media has been sounding alarms about the troll farms for years, including the St. Petersburg local outlet Fontanka, the business news agency RBK, and the independent TV station Dozhd.

“Prigozhin's factory is just part of a huge system with many branches that aims to shape public opinion,” says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the Institute of National Strategy in Moscow, an independent think tank. “There is nothing surprising in the fact that such a system exists, but it was a bit of a surprise to learn that it works not only in Russia but also outside the country.”

Internet usage in Russia has exploded over the past decade, with up to 70 percent of the population accessing it every day, says Kirill Rodin, a communications expert with the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency. He says it's only recently that people have become aware that cyberspace might be shark infested.

“You can meet not only friends, but also swindlers, con artists, and peddlers of fake news,” he says. “The naive time of fascination with the internet is over, and Russians are learning to take a more sober approach to news and declarations made in this space.”

He says the impact of internet trolling may be overstated. “A lot of studies done during the last Duma elections [in 2016] found that candidates who put a stake on internet advertising as their main means of agitation failed badly. Voters seem to follow more traditional means of promotion more closely. But we have few surveys on how internet information flows influence public opinion more generally. My guess is that it's minimal, and focused on very local segments,” he says.

But anecdotally, internet trolls do affect candidates themselves. “We feel the pressure,” says Igor Yakovlev, press secretary for presidential candidate and long-standing opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky. “It is not constant, it happens from time to time, but we do suffer from troll attacks.... Sometimes these are simple insults. Sometimes it's tougher-worded reactions to our positions, particularly on foreign policy. We try to ban such accounts but when massive attacks occur, it is rather difficult to contain. When we experience a huge wave of such negative comments, it becomes clear that trolls are doing their job.

“We gradually get used to trolling as a fact of political life,” Mr. Yakovlev adds. “We do not have evidence to prove who is behind it.”

‘Who are these trolls?’

The phenomenon seems to have its roots in 2011, when Russia saw both a surge in internet use and the rise of a mass movement of protest over allegedly fraudulent Duma elections. Opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny took to social media to dramatize charges of official corruption and to organize rallies against it – something that Mr. Navalny has excelled at. (Navalny's personal blog site has currently been blockaded by Russian authorities.)

“Russian authorities seem to have initiated the creation of this system [of troll farms] for internal use several years ago, when opponents like Navalny were getting a lot of support, especially among the youth, with the help of the social nets,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of Kryshtanovskaya Labs and Russia's leading specialist in elite studies.

“The authorities didn't understand much about such things, and they were sluggish,” she says. That's when intermediaries stepped in to do the job. “Nobody really knows who Prigozhin is or the degree of influence he wields. Who are these trolls, why are they needed, who created them? This is not a subject we have much information about, and it's not something Russian society is discussing.”

The Kremlin connection to internet influence operations such as Prigozhin's may be a tenuous one, says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint journal, published by the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.

“The web is an environment that's free for everyone to use. The proportion of loyalists to critics on the internet is the same as it is in Russian society at large. There are far more loyalists than critics, and they can be just as passionate,” she says.

“There is no shortage of money in Russia for funding any operation that is seen as currying favor with the Kremlin. People like Prigozhin may do this, not because they receive instructions but because they see it as pleasing to authority. And, indeed, it can't be unpleasant for Putin, or he'd put a stop to it. But the degree of government involvement is unclear, and it may never be known,” she says.

Ms. Lipman notes that some wonder why Putin, who enjoys 80 percent public approval ratings, needs to have his image constantly burnished by secretive internet trolls. “I think the answer is in the logic of super-majority rule – the impression of total social support – which is Putin's method,” she says. “You can never have enough, and you must never leave anything to chance.”

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