I believe it is right to praise those stalwart journalists who helped expose the troll factory and much of the propaganda machine of Russia. However, I can’t forget that they mostly still live in Russia, where journalists are frequently targeted, their health, their work, their families, and their lives, are frequently threatened and sometimes they are harassed beyond comprehension. That humans can do that to others in this millennium defies belief and opposes my conviction of our evolution.
Boris Nemtsov believed that his fame made him impervious to Russian assassination, but, ultimately, he was proven wrong. Shining a spotlight on these brave individuals might put them in harm’s way, as well. God bless them, every one.
Kudos to DFRLab for this fine piece of work. Ben Nimmo and Aric Toler deserve all the credit.
A tribute to the Russian journalists who exposed the “troll factory”
The reason we know so much about the Russian information operations which targeted the United States from 2014 to 2017 is that some Russian journalists are very good at their jobs.
Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russian citizens for conducting “interference operations targeting the United States” provided a wealth of detail on the workings of the so-called “Internet Research Agency” in St. Petersburg, from which the accused are said to have operated.
Yet many of those details were already known, thanks to the work of Russian investigative journalists. It was Russian journalists who first revealed the existence of the “troll factory” (its Russian nickname) in 2013, and Russian journalists who exposed the identities of its most effective accounts. While we mostly know the activities of the “troll factory” for its work around the 2016 American election, a number of Russian journalists uncovered how it mostly focused on influencing domestic opinion, especially with its early activities.
It was Russian journalists, too, who provided the sharpest insights into the workings of Kremlin propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik, disproving the outlets’ claims to be no more than journalists.
This post delineates the extraordinary work done by independent Russian journalists who provided so much detail on the Russian information operations.
“Where the trolls live”
According to Mueller’s indictment, the Internet Research Agency was registered as a Russian corporate entity “in or around July 2013.”
Mueller’s dating could have been more precise. On September 9, 2013, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta (Новая газета) published an investigative piece headlined, “Where the trolls live. How internet provocateurs in St Petersburg work, and who pays them.”
According to the Novaya article, the Internet Research Agency was registered in the Russian Unified State Register of Legal Entities (ЕГРЮЛ, Единый государственный реестр юридических лиц) on July 26, 2013.
Novaya’s article, bylined by St. Petersburg correspondent Alexandra Garmazhapova, was one of three pieces which exposed the “troll factory” to the world in August-September 2013. The first was a post on social network VK by a woman called Natalya Lvova, describing how she had answered an ad to become an “internet operator” and come across a team whose job was to make political posts online.
According to Lvova, each team member had to write around 100 online comments a day, focusing on Russian politics:
When I asked about the technical assignment — what exactly should I write in the comments — the coordinator guy explained briefly and clearly that now, for example, they are having a busy time, and that yesterday they all wrote in support of [Sergei] Sobyanin [then a candidate for re-election as Mayor of Moscow], and ‘today we are slandering [anti-corruption leader and mayoral candidate Aleksei] Navalny‘. And he shows me under one of the articles a bunch of comments by his employees …
Apparently tipped off by Lvova’s post, two journalists posed as job applicants and entered the Internet Research Agency: Novaya’s Garmazhapova, and Andrei Soshnikov, of St. Petersburg local paper Moy Rayon (Мой район), now with the BBC’s Russian Service.
The two journalists described an organization which photocopied applicants’ passports as a matter of course, but then took no steps to verify their identities; an organization which was already divided into dedicated teams for different forms of online activity. As Garmazhapova wrote:
A giant, snow-white cottage. A guard, secretary and offices with signs, ‘Management of bloggers and commentators,’ ‘Rapid reaction department,’ ‘SEO department,’ ‘Journalists,’ ‘Creative department,’ ‘Commentators’ department,’ ‘Bloggers’ department,’ ‘Social media specialists’ department.’ On the third floor, the management’s office and a conference room.