Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hunt For Vladimir Putin's Troll Nest

by Nomad

In Vladimir Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, journalists uncovered one of the Russian leader's covert operations. Paid by the Kremlin, online trolls are paid to blog and comment, praising Putin and vilifying his opposition and all things American.

Reporters for the St. Petersburg Times recently infiltrated a covert online operation which acts as pro-Putin mouthpiece. Employees, the report alleged, were being paid to write  "pro-Kremlin postings and comments on the Internet, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture."

Professional Comrades
In August of 2013, journalists received a tip from the public. It seemed plausible enough. The insider described her interview with a company called St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency. She described the location as a “posh cottage with glass walls” in Olgino, a village in St. Petersburg’s Kurortny District.
She told the reporters:
The office occupying two rooms reminded her of an “internet club with lots of computers and people.” Employees in one room wrote blog posts for social networks, while those in the other room specialized in comments.
The unsuspecting interviewer was quite upfront about the technical details, about what to write and which political party to support. According the tip:
Each commenter was to write no less than 100 comments a day, while people in the other room were to write four postings a day, which then went to the other employees whose job was to post them on social networks as widely as possible.

Employees at the company, located at 131 Lakhtinsky Prospekt, were paid 1,180 rubles ($36.50) for a full 8-hour day and received a free lunch...
The employment ad- which has since been deleted- invited “goal-oriented people who like to surf the Internet” to join its “successful team.” “Now you’ll be able to surf the Internet and receive money for it,” it said.
According to the ad, the positions of “blogger” and “commenter on articles, copywriter” were available. Bloggers were asked to write articles or a column, while commenters were to write comments on the articles. “The subjects are different, depending on orders,” the ad said.
Bloggers were obliged to write negative posts about opposition candidates but also against America and American culture. For example, one paid blogger reportedly wrote a post criticizing American films, while praising Russian ones. “Each [American film] is a flawed film […] for, dare I say it, a flawed nation.”

In addition to blogs and comments in forums, the organization reportedly makes good use of Twitter.
According to one source, they also use automated Twitter accounts to send out the same tweets to their target or send different-worded tweets to multiple hashtags, each time giving a tweet a number. (See examples)

The tweets, comments and posts have in the past compared the opposition candidate to Hitler, accusing him of being a homosexual, and claiming he supported the Holocaust.
One such comment read: “If Navalny comes to power, he will sell our country to hell! He’s simply sent from the U.S.” Another one stated “America trains people to run our country. Navalny is a typical example of such an agent”
Following a three-month trial period, employees would be paid a salary starting at  25,000 rubles ($775) a month. 

Wheels Within Wheels
Reporters for the St. Petersburg Times followed up on their lead and found the essentials indeed checked out. The unsuspecting chief of operations, reportedly, boasted that the St. Petersburg organization was only one of many that were active in several cities, including Moscow.
Putin's critics have suspected the existence of such a troll network for some time, but were nevertheless somewhat surprised how easily journalists were able to enter the actual work place of such an organization.

In fact, according to the report, this organization represents a cog in a still larger propaganda machine. The article explains:
“The effect created by such Internet trolls is not very big, but they manage to make certain forums meaningless because people stop commenting on the articles when these trolls sit there and constantly create an aggressive, hostile atmosphere toward those whom they don’t like. These include commentary systems on the web sites of every major media outlet in the city that the trolls began to occupy a long time ago and react to certain news with torrents of mud and abuse. This makes it meaningless for a reasonable person to comment on anything there.”

According to Volokhonsky, the organized teams of pro-Kremlin bloggers and commenters first emerged soon after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2005, when protesters managed to have the results of the contested presidential elections annulled and a rerun arranged. Paid pro-Kremlin bloggers were associated with the Nashi youth movement created by the Kremlin at the same time. The alleged email correspondence of Nashi “commissar” Kristina Potupchik that was hacked and uploaded on the Internet in February 2012 revealed the names and amount of payments to bloggers for participating in pro-Kremlin and anti-opposition web campaigns.

Volokhonsky said that such blogs are frequently used to introduce a subject which is then picked up by the conventional media and presented as news.
In effect, a species of news creation. 
The reporters noted with amusement that phrases found on comments and on blog posts, preceded the exact phrases broadcast by the largely-Kremlin controlled media. 

It is also important to note that this operation was up and running long before the Crimean invasion in Ukraine. Many analysts have pointed out the striking similarity between what's happening in the information war for Ukraine and the information war for Syria.

The Looking Glass War
Does the US have a similar operation?  
The answer is yes, if you believe one former CIA clandestine service trainee and DIA analyst Lynnae Williams. She has disclosed that  "the FBI and CIA use trolls to monitor social media and interact with users to discredit information disseminated on the web. Williams explains that the CIA provides training videos to new recruits on how to troll the internet. Once a target is locked-in, all open source information is obtained on the individual, and then any angle to discredit them in public forum is used on social media sites." 

Edward Snowden- who has found a safe house behind Putin's chain-link curtain- could probably be glad to provide the paperwork. Glenn Greenwald would be more than happy to publish whatever revelations Snowden provides. 

One the other hand, all Americans are quite free to criticize their own government without fear. Those who work at Fox News and the more extremist elements of the Tea Party are more than eager to castigate Obama's every move. And those people will do it far more accurately, far more economically and enthusiastically than any paid Russian troll could ever dream of doing.