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Whistle-Blowing Russian 'Troll' Gets Her Day In Court

  • Viktor Rezunkov

Lyudmila Savchuk says she began "gathering information and passing it to journalists" from her first day on the job.

Lyudmila Savchuk says she began "gathering information and passing it to journalists" from her first day on the job.

A young woman who says she was hired by a Russian company to dissemble and to promote certain political views online has come out of the shadows to shine a light on her purported former employer and the practice, known as "trolling."

Lyudmila Savchuk was due in a St. Petersburg district courtroom on June 1 to argue that a company called Internet Research withheld details of her employment and firing after she tried to blow the whistle on its practices.

Savchuk says she was fired after an interview she gave earlier this year in which she described work for Internet Research, which is based on St. Petersburg's Savushkin Street, as part of Russia's "troll factory.

She has filed a lawsuit alleging that her former employer failed to provide any contract or paperwork supporting her hiring and dismissal.

Since she was dismissed in March, she has also set up a social-media group, Information Peace, to speak out against online trolling.

'Round-The Clock' Operation

Savchuk, who initially sought to keep her identity secret, is the latest Russian to claim experience in what Moscow's critics say is a coordinated effort to mislead and shape online debate on pet issues.

Fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and VKontakte have appeared in the past year that focus on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv and Western governments have accused Russia of intervening militarily.

Many of the bogus social-media accounts have been linked to the Internet Research Agency.

Savchuk tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that she got the job with Internet Research after responding to a job advertisement. "I wanted to research the company's activities," she says, adding that she began "gathering information and passing it to journalists" from her first day on the job, January 2.

She says that "there are hundreds of people -- operating around-the clock -- writing thousands of comments, texts, and posts on all social-media sites and blogs."

The target sites are Russian and English-language, Savchuk says. "They comment on media articles and write for social-networking sites, pretending to be ordinary people; they ran blogs under false pretenses," she says. "They promote ideas they were given through verbal or written instruction."

'Pretending They Don't Exist'

Savchuk says she is no longer in contact with her former colleagues. She claims she has tried unsuccessfully to convince them "not to be involved in such nonsense."

A lawyer from St. Petersburg-based Kommanda-29, which was set up to promote freedom of information and is advising Savchuk in her case, told RFE/RL the lawsuit accused Internet Research of violating Russian labor law.

Savchuk contends that the company employs hundreds of people without contracts, giving them "cash in hand" and avoiding taxes. "Wages are paid under the table," she says. "You just get a bunch of money from the accountant. Obviously, it's a 'black salary' that wasn't declared to authorities."

"I want to draw the attention of the public and the authorities to this," she says. Savchuk says Internet Research "pretends it doesn't exist, although the whole world knows about its existence."

Multiple telephone calls by RFE/RL to Internet Research's offices in St. Petersburg for comment went unanswered.

Other former employees have spoken to media in the past -- some publicly and some off-the-record -- describing its operations. They describe the job as paying at least 40,000 rubles ($700) a month.

Marat Burkhard, who also claimed to be a former employee, told RFE/RL he worked for a 20-strong department that operated around-the-clock in two 12-hour shifts. "People would write something on the forum -- some kind of news -- and our task was to comment on it," he said.

Burkhard described scenarios in which team members would combine to present what appeared to be an impromptu debate online, including with one posing as a "villain" who might criticize the Russian authorities to invite counterarguments.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Viktor Rezunkov