The indictment by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III of 13 Russians associated with a St. Petersburg online “troll factory” that allegedly interfered with the U.S. election has brought a sense of vindication to the handful of former employees who have already been speaking out about what they witnessed.
One of them, 43-year-old Marat Mindiyarov, a teacher by training, spoke by phone with The Washington Post on Saturday from the village outside St. Petersburg where he lives. Mindiyarov worked in a department for Russian domestic consumption. When he took a test in December 2014 to move to the factory’s “Facebook department” targeting the U.S. market, Mindiyarov recalled, he was asked to write an essay about Hillary Clinton. Here are lightly edited excerpts of the conversation.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the Mueller indictment?
I congratulate America that they achieved something — that they put forward an indictment rather than just writing about this. I congratulate Robert Mueller.
How did you end up at the troll factory?
I worked there from November 2014 to February 2015. I ended up there totally by accident — I happened to be unemployed, and this place had work right by my house. So I went there. I realized quickly that this was the kind of place where I only wanted to spend enough time until I got my salary and I could leave.
How did it feel inside?
I arrived there, and I immediately felt like a character in the book “1984” by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white. Your first feeling, when you ended up there, was that you were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line. The volumes were colossal — there were huge numbers of people, 300 to 400, and they were all writing absolute untruths. It was like being in Orwell’s world.
What sorts of untruths did you write?
My untruths amounted to posting comments. I worked in the commenting department — I had to comment on the news. No one asked me my opinion. My opinions were already written for me, and I had to write in my own words that which I was ordered to write.
When I was there, there were sanctions [by the European Union and the United States in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine] and the ruble started falling. I was writing everything that was the opposite: how wonderful our life was, how wonderful it is that the ruble was strengthening, and that kind of absurdity. That sanctions were going to make us stronger and so on and so forth.
Where were you writing this?
We were commenting on Russian sites — all sorts of them, LiveJournal for example, and all the Russian news websites. Wherever a given news item appeared on Russian websites, trolls were immediately created to provide the illusion of support.
What was the working environment like — was it really like a factory?
There were two shifts of 12 hours, day and night. You had to arrive exactly on time, that is, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There were production norms, for example, 135 comments of 200 characters each. … You come in and spend all day in a room with the blinds closed and 20 computers. There were multiple such rooms spread over four floors. It was like a production line, everyone was busy, everyone was writing something. You had the feeling that you had arrived in a factory rather than a creative place.
How did the trolling work?
You got a list of topics to write about. Every piece of news was taken care of by three trolls each, and the three of us would make up an act. We had to make it look like we were not trolls but real people. One of the three trolls would write something negative about the news, the other two would respond, “You are wrong,” and post links and such. And the negative one would eventually act convinced. Those are the kinds of plays we had to act out.
Do you think it worked?
Who really reads the comments under news articles, anyway? Especially when they were so obviously fake. People working there had no literary interest or abilities. These were mechanical texts. It was a colossal labor of monkeys, it was pointless. For Russian audiences, at least. But for Americans, it appears it did work. They aren’t used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it’s accepted to answer for your words. And here — I was amazed how everyone was absolutely sure of their impunity, even as they wrote incredibly offensive comments. They were sure that with the anonymity of the Internet, no one would find them.
How much would you get paid?
Around 40,000 rubles a month [about $700 at the current exchange rate]. We’d work 12-hour days, two days on, two days off.
Did you know that the factory was also targeting the United States?
We didn’t visit other departments, but I knew there was a “Facebook department.” … It wasn’t a secret. We all had essentially the same topics, they were focused on American readers and we were focused on Russians.
How did you know about it?
I speak English, and they asked me if I would like to transfer to the Facebook department. The pay there was two times as high. I said, “Well, let me try.” I failed the test because you had to know English perfectly. The reader must not have the feeling that you are a foreigner. The language demands were in fact very high, they were demanding high-end translators, basically.
What was this test like?
First, they tested your knowledge of English. I first had to write something about, “What do you think about vegetarians?” or something like that. Then it was, “What do you think of Hillary Clinton? What chances does she have to win in the U.S. election?” You had to write at great length about this. … The main thing was showing that you are able to show that you can represent yourself as an American. … I failed the test because you had to know English perfectly.
And what were the people like who worked in the American department?
I would see them on smoking breaks. … They were totally modern-looking young people, like hipsters, wearing fashionable clothes with stylish haircuts and modern devices. They were so modern that you wouldn’t think they could do something like this.
Why did you leave?
I left for moral reasons. I was ashamed to work there.
From what you’ve seen them do in the U.S. campaign, does it look like they used the same kinds of tactics that you saw, or has their sophistication increased?
Their level grew, without question. Back then they were just beginning, and then they started with more complicated fake-news tactics. … Back then, we didn’t arrange events.
Had you heard that Yevgeny Prigozhin was behind the factory’s operations?
Of course I heard it, and I think it’s true. But the trolls there mainly scolded him. He’s known as the “main chef” of the Kremlin, and yet in this huge building, there was no cafe, no cafeteria, nothing! … Everyone brought their own little jars and little flasks.
What do you think will be the repercussions of this indictment in Russia?
I think the factory will continue to exist and everything will remains as it was. … The people on the list of indictments have nothing to fear as long as they are in Russia.
Anton Troianovski is The Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously spent nine years at The Wall Street Journal, most recently as Berlin correspondent.