Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

When Russian Trolls Attack


ILLUSTRATIONS BY SYDNEY HASS

If American women think they are oppressed, this is a must-read story.

Russian trolls are exceedingly cruel, nasty, mean, and vicious.  It seems to be a pathological drive, a need to exceed the preceding comment for vile.  

Not only did Russia de facto decriminalize wife beating, Police also actively discourage rapes from being reported. This hyper-machismo society appears to be compensating for a lack of 21st-century culture. 

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Anna Zhavnerovich knew she was taking a risk when she publicized the details of her assault online. But in doing so, she joined a growing movement of survivors fighting back against Russia’s Kremlin-influenced trolling machine.

ANNA ZHAVNEROVICH WOKE WITH A START, her purple eye sockets and swollen lips throbbing. It had been two days since she woke up to her ex-boyfriend, Mikhail, pinning her down on the couch, his face twisted in rage. He slammed his fists into her eyes, cheeks, and chin. She went limp. She felt furious that she would die on her couch.

But Anna didn’t die. Instead, the then-28-year-old journalist peeled herself off of the couch, dripping blood as she hobbled to the bathroom. The next day, she phoned her editor, Katya. In the white-walled calmness of Katya’s apartment in Moscow’s Red Square, just a few blocks from the Kremlin, the two women made a calculated choice: They weren’t going to let Mikhail get away with it. To the two women, writing about the attack felt like a professional duty—a chance to save lives using the only tool at their disposal: the internet.

Going public was a risky move. In Russia, at the highest levels of government and society, violence against women is tolerated and even defended. According to Human Rights Watch, each year roughly 12,000 women there are killed, most often by husbands, lovers, and other men close to the victims. Police in Russia are often slow to respond to calls for help from women, or don’t respond at all—which means that the internet is often the place of last resort. And women who talk about their abuse, on television or the web, are punished with a startling amount of online abuse.

For Anna, the risk felt worth it. Her words might lay the groundwork for other battered women to seek help; she hoped that picking apart the details of her own assault would help her heal. Anna started small: She chronicled her experiences in a diary, scrawling pages with details about every incident, every emotion, and the topography of every purple bruise. By the spring of 2015, just four months later, Anna had exhaustively chronicled her story. She compiled the brutal details of her attack in two dispatches for the hip Russian website W-O-S, where she normally wrote lifestyle articles. Alongside the stories, she posted photographs of her injuries, copies of legal papers, and advice on how to stay alive.

“I wake up from the sound of my own name,” she wrote. “My boyfriend sits on me and fixes my hands and feet so I cannot move, and starts to beat: he strikes my head and face. He screams that I have a conspiracy against him with my friends. After probably two dozen strikes, he stops and says: ‘Now this is your true face, Anechka.’”

Almost as soon as they posted the story, people began to read it. Anna’s words had the effect she’d hoped: Hundreds of women reached out to her, sharing their own stories of violence and survival. Then, like clockwork, the trolls surfaced. Thousands of them.

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Bitch, they called her. A hysterical wretch.

You’re lying, they said. You provoked the man. Nothing bad happens to good girls.

The abuse went beyond harsh words. Anna’s harassers photoshopped her bloodied photographs into memes on Reddit, mocking her wounds. Hateful, threatening messages poured in on VKontakte (or VK, Russia’s leading social media site) and through W-O-S’ site itself. Readers replied to her story with a viral meme called “Smack the bitch up,” which had been around for years. Leading bloggers and journalists penned op-eds and articles about her attack; many of them blamed her for her assault, while others questioned the newsworthiness of her article, calling the topic “old.”

She’ll end up in a mental hospital soon, they wrote.

Anna’s story became one of the most widely read articles ever published by W-O-S. In publishing it, Anna joined the ranks of a small but growing club: the group of women facing down a spree of online abuse intended to drive them off the internet. All because they talked about rape and violence against women in Russia—the country with the most organized trolling culture in the world.

Anna, before she was attacked.W-O-S.RU
Anna, in the aftermath of her attack.W-O-S.RU

TO UNDERSTAND WHY WOMEN LIKE ANNA face so much abuse online, first you have to understand the Russian internet. More Russians than ever are connected to the internet today: The rate of citizens with internet access has bloomed from three million daily users in 2003 to over 70 million in 2017, according to Public Opinion Foundation, a Russian market research company. By the end of 2015, roughly 73 percent of Russians were online, according to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union.

When these citizens go online, they’re typically using one of the domestic internet companies that dominate the market—a direct result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet military industrial complex, which forced engineers to shift into the IT sector. Because of that, the line between political demands and internet policy is often blurred. “These very companies proved to be very receptive to Kremlin’s demands when the Kremlin started pressuring them,” says journalist Andrei Soldatov, who has reported on the Russia’s internet since the 1990s. “It’s because the mindset of Russian engineers, trained to do their jobs and not ask too many questions, is still there. At the same time, the country’s communications modernized so quickly that it led to the surge of online community, and online activists.”

Trolling plays a key role in Russian politics—both domestic and foreign—in order to humiliate political opponents, push certain legislation, and influence voters. The infamous pro-Kremlin “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, also known as the Internet Research Agency, has become known for international feats such as meddling in US politics by organizing political rallies, posing as American activists online, and pumping out propaganda that is republished across the US.

According to Damir Gainutdinov, a Russian lawyer with Agora International Human Rights Group specializing in internet issues, trolling is central to Russian state policy. “When it became clear that the authorities failed to limit access to independent information completely, they set the task to clog it,” he says. “To fill the internet with rumors, lies, and hatred. To foul discussion on media sites, both Russian and foreign.”

“You’re lying,” they said. “You provoked the man. Nothing bad happens to good girls.”

Within Russia, the techniques of organized trolling have become an internalized part of internet culture—a way that people spread their points of view online. But when trolling happens casually, its targets are often women.

Around the world, women often find themselves fending off trolls and harassers. But in Russia, it’s worse. Russia is a place where rape—the least reported category of crime in the country—and sexually violent language are often used in “jest” in everyday life, as well as in threats online. In a country plagued by endemic discrimination and violence against women, the internet is a playground for the darkest forces. And women who come forward about abuse and rape are the ones that face the full fury of the Russian internet.

AS A WRITER WHO OFTEN TOUCHES on feminist issues, Anna was well-versed in Russia’s patriarchy. She knew what she was up against when she decided to go public. There were plenty of women before and after her who become internet pariahs overnight.

Diana Shurygina, a 16-year-old girl who was violently raped at a party, is one of the most famous cases. After a closed court convicted Shurygina’s rapist and sent him to jail—a rarity in Russia, as perpetrators of violence against women often get off scot-free—supporters of her rapist created an online petition claiming she was a liar and published pictures from her personal VK account. Her interview on the popular Russian television show “Let Them Talk” would be watched over 17 million times on YouTube alone. Overnight, Shurygina became a hero, a celebrity, and one of the most hated women on Russia’s internet.

Millions of people obsessively followed every detail of her life online, sending hate mail, death threats, and obscenity her way. Memes mocked her rape, video mashups of her interviews went viral, and even brands like Burger King poked fun at her plight to promote their products online in Russia. As she gained notoriety online, vandals slashed her dad’s car tires and strangers attacked her mom in the street, according to her family. In April, news reports said that she had been hospitalized at a psychiatric facility.

18-year-old Irina Sycheva was another young Russian survivor of violence who faced devastating trolling. After a classmate circulated online a recording of Sycheva’s rape in a bathroom stall, Sycheva filed a police report and her rapists were later convicted and imprisoned. Irina took to television in October 2015 to talk about her ordeal. But instead of expressing outrage that a young woman was raped, many Russians online displayed sympathy for her rapist, claiming she had brought on her own rape. In July 2016, Sycheva threw herself in front of a subway train, but a passerby saved her.

This epidemic is likely to worsen after Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a controversial bill in February that effectively decriminalizes some forms of domestic violence. (The Russian Orthodox Church, a major player in Russia, publicly advocated for the bill, arguing that family life should be kept private.) In Russia, abuse is now no longer illegal for first-time offenders if their victims do not seek outside help or haven’t faced enough harm to be hospitalized. Prior to the bill, abusers could face up to two years in jail. Now, they can pay a fine, and at worst face 15 days in jail.

Even before the new law, women complained that law enforcement was of little help. When Anna reported her attack to police on December 29, 2014, they asked her if she was married and why she didn’t yet have children. She filed her paperwork and police promised to “follow up.” After the appointment, Anna went to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a moderate brain injury and multiple hematomas.

For weeks after she filed the report, there was no news from the police. She called them repeatedly; no one answered. When she called a hotline for victims of domestic violence, the answering machine told her to call back after the holidays, on January 12. Police dropped the case against Mikhail. It was only after lawyers read her account online, Anna says, that he was convicted and forced to pay a fine.

THAT TENSION PUTS WOMEN in a conundrum: Writing about abuse is often the only way to draw the attention of police. Yet cyberbullies—usually acting anonymously—have a tendency to go after women who speak up about sexual violence or rape. Trolls are able to team up to target women, uncover personal information, and “take them down” online, according to Andrei Soshnikov, a Russian investigative journalist who was one of the first to report on the “troll factory” in St. Petersburg. According to RBC Newspaper—a Russian business daily that has conducted extensive investigations into Putin and Russia’s government—there are 16 websites reaching 36 million users per month that are thought to have direct connections to pro-government trolls.

Liberal activists’ personal emails and passport information often end up online, and online users try to unearth sexually humiliating information on women, specifically. It’s typically unclear whether online abusers are using official channels to troll, or if they are merely emboldened individual citizens.

Maria Baronova, a political activist who campaigned in last year’s parliamentary elections, woke up a month before the election to find nude photos of herself plastered all over the internet, including on the pro-Kremlin LifeNews site. They had been hacked from her iCloud. Natalya Pelevina, aide to opposition party leader Mikhail Kasyanov, found their sex tape leaked to the press.

For women like Anna who make a name for themselves online, punishment for outspokenness can be swift and devastating. But women are taking to the internet and carving out a small space to fight back.

In July 2016, Ukrainian activist Anastasia Melnichenko ignited an online discussion when she used the hashtag #IAmNotAfraidToSay on Facebook, detailing multiple acts of sexual violence committed against her—including when her ex-boyfriend violently threatened to publish nude photographs of her online. Thousands of women in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere in the region took to social media to detail their own stories of abuse, and many of them faced backlash for doing so.

Shurygina, after surviving a violent rape and public witch hunt, created her own YouTube channel, posting videos where she’s discussed online trolling and sexual violence. Then she pushed further, organizing a group on VK.com called Tell Diana where rape victims can share their stories of sexual violence and survival and seek out psychological and legal aid online. Thousands of women have signed up.

“I’m glad she found strength to do it,” Anna says of Diana. She, too, has channeled her infamy into a force of good online. Now, she helps women—many of whom reach out to her via VK and other social media channels—organize their escape to flee abusive partners, and she educates them on the exact steps to take to get justice.

Recently, Anna received a message from a woman—a public figure—whose husband beats and threatens to kill her.

“She can’t just say to him that she’s leaving,” Anna explains. “Because she’s afraid that he would kill her on the spot. That’s why we have to carefully plan her escape.”

Anna’s advice was clear: Make a plan. Leave from work. Call a friend with a car if you have one. “If you don’t have one,” Anna told her, “I will help you find someone. Take all your belongings and disappear.”

She still gets threatening messages online, some of them from her ex-boyfriend. But intermixed with them are messages from women all over Russia, reaching out for solidarity via their computers and their phones. If Russia’s worsening legislation toward domestic violence and rape is a sign of what’s to come, then women will likely face increasing abuse online and off. But the fact that women are increasingly reaching out and speaking up is what motivates Anna. “By saving others you save yourself,” she says. “I guess it’s the Biblical truth.”

Sophia Jones is an Istanbul-based journalist and The Fuller Projectsenior editor. Yulia James is a journalist and a contributing reporter with The Fuller Project.

Backchannel is a digital magazine that delivers readers the most revealing technology stories in a single weekly dispatch: no fluff. Learn more here.

Source: https://www.wired.com/2017/10/russian-trolls-attack/

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