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The Trolls Who Came In From The Cold

  • Viktor Rezunkov

A laptop computer and a newspaper show reports about the arrival of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden to Russia, at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, in June 2013.

A laptop computer and a newspaper show reports about the arrival of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden to Russia, at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, in June 2013.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Last May, Tatiana N decided she wanted a higher salary than the average journalist can expect.

After responding to an advertisement in the popular HeadHunter job-search website, she became a Kremlin-paid Internet troll. Tatiana -- who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that her last name not be used -- worked out of a 2,500-square-meter warehouse in the suburbs of St. Petersburg.

The job paid 40,000 rubles a month, significantly more than the 25,000-30,000 most journalists make. But it came, she said, "with pain."

Tatiana joined a round-the-clock operation in which an army of trolls disseminated pro-Kremlin and anti-Western talking points on blogs and in the comments sections of news websites in Russia and abroad.

The operation, Internet Research, is financed through a holding company headed by President Vladimir Putin's "personal chef," Evgeny Prigozhin.

"So you write, write, write, from the point of view of anyone," Tatiana, ​22, says.

"You could be [posing as] a housewife who bakes dumplings and suddenly decides: 'I have an opinion about what Putin said! And this action by Vladimir Vladimirovich saves Russia."

The roughly 400 employees work 12-hour shifts and are split into various departments. Some focus on writing up themes and assignments, others concentrate on commenting, and others work on graphics for social media.

READ the original Russian-language version of this story

One department is devoted entirely to maintaining blogs on Livejournal that intersperse banal posts with rough-edged pro-Kremlin propaganda.

The daily assignments -- shown in a document first published on March 11 by independent St. Petersburg newspaper My Region -- are usually drawn directly from pro-Kremlin media and go into sometimes excruciating detail about the message the bloggers and commenters are supposed to relay.

One assignment instructed trolls how to frame the February 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov: Either it was orchestrated by Ukrainian oligarchs to frame Russia and harm Moscow's relations with the West, or it was carried out by Nemtsov's supporters as a "provocation" ahead of opposition protests.

Lena N, another former employee, says she stopped working at Internet Research after refusing to blog the company line about Nemtsov's killing.

"It was necessary to bring people to believe that the killing of Boris Nemtsov was a provocation before the march and a murder carried out by his own [supporters]," she says.

The Kremlin's footprint in the Russian Internet has grown considerably since massive antigovernment protests broke out in Moscow in 2011-12 -- protests that were largely organized online.

Although, with some notable exceptions online news is still largely uncensored, a growing array of voices -- many suspected of being trolls -- sometimes cloud online conversations with disinformation.

Internet Research, which is officially run by a retired police colonel named Mikhail Bystrov, was first exposed as a "troll farm" by the Independent Novaya Gazeta weekly newspaper in late 2013.

The hierarchical structure, former employees say, is as opaque as the makeup of the Russian bureaucracy itself.

"The underlings not only aren't allowed to approach management," says Tatiana. "But they don't even know who they are. They know only the little boss -- the so-called team leader."

Stress, former company associates say, is also high.

Video posted on the My Region website shows what it says are employees sprinting into the building in the St. Petersburg suburb of Olgino. Apparently being late comes with a 500-ruble fine.

"In the information war, every second counts," the paper writes.