In a riveting new profile of Russia’s pro-government trolls, Max Seddon explains the details of Kremlin’s newest campaign to adjust the world’s view of Putin Country. According to strategy documents leaked by “a mysterious Russian hacker collective,” a firm called Internet Research Agency employs a small army of English-speakers to diligently troll major websites.
These trolls go by such names as “The Ghost of Marius the Giraffe, Gay Turtle and Ass.” If the state of Russian “media” wasn’t pathetic enough, these “freelance bloggers” bombard the comment sections of Fox News, Huffington Post and WorldNetDaily and all major Russian-language sites with pro-Putin, pro-Ukraine invasion and “I Love Russia”-themed messages, in order to combat the world’s mostly negative perception of Putin’s Russia. In one of the hacked documents, project team member Svetlana Boiko explains:
“Like any brand formed by popular opinion, Russia has its supporters (‘brand advocates’) and its opponents. The main problem is that in the foreign internet community, the ratio of supporters and opponents of Russia is about 20/80 respectively.”
The trolls troll from various parts of Russia, but they are trained and paid by a firm called Internet Research Agency based out of a Saint Petersburg suburb. If you’re looking to acquire labor-intensive skills in social media outreach and micropublishing while propagating that Russia isn’t really invading Ukraine or that Putin isn’t really/should be oppressing the LGBT and is totally an ok guy in general — this is the job for you!
The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is 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 are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.
But can we trust the self-proclaimed hackers? Sure, Russia’s only independent investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta had infiltrated its own “troll farm” last year, but could this recent influx of pro-Russia commenting web-wide be some sort of a natural phenomena?
“What, you think crazy Russians all learned English en masse and went off to comment on articles?” said Leonid Bershidsky, a media executive and Bloomberg View columnist. “If it looks like Kremlin shit, smells like Kremlin shit, and tastes like Kremlin shit too — then it’s Kremlin shit.”
The documents also detail the budget for the Internet Research Agency, which is $75,000 for 25 employees for the month of April 2014. That’s $3,000 per employee per month. Igor Osadchy, the project’s leader who refused to comment, earns a yearly salary of $35,000 salary which is nearly twice the average net income of $17,884. But wait, there’s more trolling ahead!
The Internet Research Agency itself, founded last summer, now employs over 600 people and, if spending levels from December 2013 to April continue, is set to budget for over $10 million in 2014, according to the documents. Half of its budget is earmarked to be paid in cash.
Read more of Max Seddon’s profile here.