​How Professional Trolls Help Russia with Online Propaganda

A former employee of Russia’s online propaganda machine tells Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty about life on the job.

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Mar 27 2015, 10:00am

​Image: ​Timo Kuusela/Flickr

A new interview is pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of centers for Russian trolls paid to lobby for the government online.

For years, there has been talk about the coordinated online propaganda efforts of the Russian government, which apparently pays hundreds of daily employees to write pro-Kremlin comments and posts on forums and news publications across the web.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, one of these "professional trolls" revealed what day-to-day life is like at one of the centers for this kind of work, an office in St. Petersburg called the Internet Research center.

Blogger Marat Burkhard worked at the organization for just two months. He said applying involves a series of writing assignments and ideological checks to be sure employees' political views align with the government. Burkhard is pro-Western himself, and said he joined the organization just for the adventure of it.

"I didn't write anything about my views," Burkhard said. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have hired me; they would have thrown me out immediately."

Comment quotas and message board trolling are just some of the aspects of the campaign. Employees are required to post a minimum of 135 comments per 12-hour shift, and comments must be 200 characters or longer. If they reach these quotas, they are paid a salary of 40,000 rubles (around US$700) a month for their services. The employees do not work remotely, and come to the office building in St. Petersburg in person for their shifts.

"There are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments," he said. "They write and write all day, and it's no laughing matter––you can get fired for laughing."

The team Burkhard worked for targeted comment forums on municipal city and village sites in Russia. He described working in teams of three, writing pre-planned arguments amongst themselves on forums in order to bring a "feeling of authenticity" to their comments.

"One of us would be the 'villain,' the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we're doing," he said. "The other two enter into a debate with him—'No, you're not right; everything here is totally correct.' One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument."

There are other departments at the Internet Research center as well, including one that makes memes and another that targets LiveJournal, one of the most popular sites in Russia. There are also foreign departments, including a team that targets Ukrainian sites and another group that targets US news publications like CNN and BBC.

The effects of a staff of more than 600 people making hundreds of online comments a day can be seen across the internet. In 2014, The Guardian complained of what it called an "orchestrated campaign" of pro-Russia comments on its stories about Ukraine. Burkhard said the topics of comments the employees make range from praising the policies of President Vladimir Putin to criticizing President Obama's behavior, but the conflict in Ukraine is a major push.

"They throw everything they've got at Ukraine," he said.

The interview with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is the most in-depth look at the organization yet, as the organization is "really afraid of journalists," and apparently puts the whole building on alert if the press comes by to ask questions. Burkhard described existence of the center as Orwellian.

"You work in the Ministry of Truth, which is the Ministry of Lies, and everyone kind of believes in this truth," he said.