Putin’s Professional Trolls Catfished And Paid Pro-Trump Activists In The US
After embedding themselves deeply in social media, Kremlin’s trolls are branching out into mass media and activism
When you hear about Russia’s now infamous troll factory, you probably think of young, web-savvy, patriotic people who are ardent supporters of Putin’s United Russia party spreading propaganda and leaving comments praising Russia on news articles for intelligence spooks. And maybe it’s how they were originally envisioned, according to rumors on the Russian web. But in reality, their story is a lot more complicated, and they’re doing a whole lot more than just trolling, according to an investigation by RBC Magazine, one of the media holdings for a Moscow-based business consulting group.
To answer the obvious question, yes, they absolutely tried to influence the media narrative around the 2016 election, and yes, it was a major operation according to one of RBC’s sources, a former employee. Since June 2015, a team of 90 agents engaged in an effort to set up fake social media accounts posing as news agencies and grassroots activists, much of that effort taking place on Facebook. The operation cost about $2.3 million and was likely coordinated out of a single office in St. Petersburg, making it an extremely cost-effective way to sow chaos.
A large part of what they did was helping to spread fake news through social media, one of the backbones of Russia’s propaganda laundering efforts. But they also performed two other very important functions. The first was to plant propaganda exploiting racial and cultural tensions and resentment, and the second was to try and organize actual, physical rallies. Both tactics have been extensively covered by the Daily Beast, and RBC approves of their accuracy in their reporting, singling out the work of one such fake group, Secure Borders, for an instructive example.
This group, they note, attempted to hold a real rally in Twin Falls, Idaho, when the town was accepting refugees. In the run-up, the page claimed that with a growing population of refugees there was “aggression against Americans,” and promoting Breitbart stories claiming that cases of tuberculosis rose by 500% in Twin Falls after refugees began arriving. Secure Borders was also the only group which actually promoted Trump as a candidate, the rest steered as clear as possible from obviously endorsing a candidate, sticking mostly to dog whistles as not to attract too much attention.
And there’s one more hidden bombshell. In the troll factory’s attempts to spill their propaganda into the offline world, they worked with 100 or so activists in the United States who wanted to spread the pro-Trump message. The trolls pretended to be fellow Republicans sympathetic to Trump’s message and reimbursed a number of travel and media-related expenses incurred by those activists. The political junkie from Florida who really wanted to meet like-minded would-be Trump voters on one of the 118 core social media accounts set up by the trolls was actually interacting with a 20 to 30 year old Russian man or woman sitting behind a desk in Northeast Russia after responding to a vague job ad months prior.
This is very much on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s radar as he investigates Trump’s links to shady Russian interests, but the damage has already been done. These pages and ads on Facebook have been shared hundreds of millions of times before they were deleted, and millions of Americans using the social media platform saw them thanks to hyper-targeted algorithms and a $100,000 ad buy by the trolls. So if you’re wondering how effective these propaganda operations were, the rather disturbing answer seems to be, very. In fact, the targeting was so spot on, one of the questions Mueller’s team is seriously considering is whether the Trump campaign may have helped the troll factories with it.
Trying to empower the political fringes in America is far from their only task. France, Germany, and wide swaths of Eastern Europe are also targeted with the same methods and by the same people. Even Russia itself isn’t safe from its own trolls because last year, the online news portals they ran started hitting the big time with as many as 33 million unique monthly views. This is on par with traffic other major Russia media outlets see individually, so while they’re not dominating the news, they’re definitely influencing the discourse by injecting a pro-Russian, pro-Putin slant into everyday media diets at home and abroad, especially in Russian expat communities.
This is very much in line with Western assessments of how Putin is using his cyber-corps. Instead of spooks in government offices publishing what they’re told, actual young journalists hired by media experts and consultants run a number of private enterprises the stated mission of which is to give the world news coverage closer to what Putin would want it to be. Their goal is often to be first to report on certain stories to get visibility and be quoted by someone like RT and Sputnik for their angle, since this is their entire purpose for being in the first place: to sell the pro-Putin and anti-West take.
They receive a great deal of support from Yandex, the popular Russian search engine, to show up higher in the search results than one may think they will. They also don’t skimp on the production values to keep getting social media views and shares. In total, these portals employ 225 to 250 people, often real journalists looking for work, paying them ₽45,000 to ₽70,000, or $765 to $1,1,90 per month, and estimated to cost anywhere between ₽180 and ₽264 million ($3 to $4.5 million) a year to maintain. In other words, it’s good work if you can get it, and while your reporting will be encouraged to skew in very pro-Putin ways and anti-American ways, it’s not just paraphrasing talking points from on high.
Many of those 20-something to 30-something employees of these low key and somewhat secretive offshoots of the original troll factories may not be doing this out of sheer patriotism, but because that’s often their best shot at earning a decent paycheck. They can even make an extra ₽10,000 ($170) per month if they start making some fake Facebook pages to mess with a foreign election. But how exactly do the people who employ them make money with relatively low, indirect, highly fragmented traffic spread across social media, and the numbers refusing to add up when reviewed by industry experts?
All fingers point to a close friend of Putin, restauranteur Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was tied to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the original troll farm cited in multiple exposés on the subject, and which once tricked an American reporter in a hoax claiming that the U.S. was trying to recruit neo-Nazis to destabilize the country’s political future. (Hmm, is it just me, or does it seem like they got a great idea out of that one for later use?) IRA supposedly wound down, but the reporters at RBC, who shared their findings with CNN, think that it simply rebranded into a “media farm” instead, with a thick veneer of pro-Putin news written by actual journalists hiding shadowy social media operations by trolls recruited under vague, questionable, circumstances.
He is the only investor RBC’s experts could find and everyone who had a hand in running these news portals was affiliated with him in some way, shape, or form. When asked about his investment and connections to IRA by RBC’s staff, Prigozhin didn’t respond, but considering that his fingerprints are all over the troll farm and its now far more visible media arm, it seems like a good idea on his part to maintain his silence. It’s little wonder he was specifically targeted by sanctions. But even he’s paid a real financial price for running the IRA, he doesn’t seem to be backing down though, since Putin has come to rely on his troll and media shops, he might not be able to stop even if he wanted.
In the end, far from being little more than bot-makers and pro-Russian plants in the comments, the troll factory is a relatively small but well funded group more and more able to skew news coverage, drive social media conversations, catfish avid political junkies and activists, and give Putin alternative means of connecting with his international fans in Europe and the United States. Think of them not as Russian intelligence carrying out marching orders, but a foot in the door for Russian spooks and politicians, a political and media wingman if you will. And just like a wingman for someone with dubious morals, they’re willing to do some unsavory things to help their friend…