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Kremlin 'Trolls' Meddling In Russia's Own Elections? 'Of Course We Are!'

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Over the last three years, there have been many reports from people working inside the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg -- an enterprise perhaps better known as Putin's Troll Factory.

Most of those accounts have come from former employees and have focused on their work to influence politics and societies in the West.

And in fact, oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin's company was named last month in an indictment by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But the Internet Research Agency has a much larger contingent of Russian-language trolls, working to promote the Kremlin's ends inside Russia itself -- sowing paranoia and confusion, and spreading false accusations and malicious characterizations of anyone the ruling elites see as a danger to the system created by President Vladimir Putin.

Early last month, however, an account appeared on the Telegram app under the name Kremlebot from a man who purports to be currently working in the Russian-language section of the Internet Research Agency. Kremlebot declined RFE/RL's requests for an interview, fearing that it could lead to his unmasking. Instead, he agreed to let RFE/RL quote freely from his Telegram posts.

A business center in St. Petersburg that is believed to house workers from the Internet Research Agency, which is known as a pro-Putin trolling center. (file photo)
A business center in St. Petersburg that is believed to house workers from the Internet Research Agency, which is known as a pro-Putin trolling center. (file photo)

RFE/RL has not been able to establish Kremlebot's identity, but several former troll-factory employees have vouched for the accuracy of his observations on Telegram.

Kremlebot receives a monthly salary of 35,000 rubles ($500), which is supplemented by bonuses of 5,000-10,000 rubles. However, management "fines employees for every little thing," so the bonuses often vanish.

His main assignment is to patrol YouTube and leave comments there. He describes his job as "shitting in the comment boxes." In his Telegram posts, Kremlebot names numerous other troll aliases that RFE/RL has previously identified as participating in attacks on its content.

Disgusting Epithets

Kremlebot says the nature of his department's work has changed with time.

"Earlier, we had to choose some arguments, look up some figures for the Rosstat [government statistics agency], or at least rip something off from Wikipedia," he wrote. "Now all you have to do is write insults."

Now the main task is to attach insulting labels to Kremlin targets. Wherever the name of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny appears, he wrote, the trolls are quick to add the epithet "anal" or worse.

"What is the purpose?" he wrote. "To 'create a firm associative connection.' A person hears 'Navalny' and some disgusting epithet jumps into their mind. At least that is the theory -- I don't know how well it works in practice."

The Internet Research Agency is owned by the Russian tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin. (file photo)
The Internet Research Agency is owned by the Russian tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin. (file photo)

Kremlebot says the shift has come because there is no point in trying "to persuade opponents of the current policies and we don't bother."

"Now the struggle is for the mass of the population," he wrote. "And you have to speak with those people in their own language. You have to be more simple to draw the people toward you."

As for Russia's March 18 presidential election, Kremlebot wrote that the focus is on boosting the turnout. As might be expected, all employees of the troll factory are obligated to vote and to prove they did so by providing a polling-station selfie to their manager.

He added that his job was to fight against Navalny's calls for an election boycott by spicing up the predictable campaign rather than agitating directly for Putin.

"With [Communist Party candidate Pavel] Grudinin, the whole situation is comical," he wrote. "Half the day I spend writing comments like: 'What is the point of a boycott! We should vote for Grudinin! He is the real opposition to Putin! There is no point in staying home! Vote for Grudinin!'"

"But I spend the second half of the day proving that he is unworthy, a liar, disgusting," Kremlebot added. "He has foreign bank accounts, has taken billions out of the country, breaks the law, doesn't pay taxes, and, in general, is a communist."

'Isolated, Secretive' English Section

Kremlebot says the troll factory's recent notoriety has complicated its work.

"And it is not just because our comments stopped being taken seriously," he wrote. "The irony is that people have started seeing any pro-government comment as bought and paid for. It is funny to watch some genuinely pro-Kremlin ordinary guy jump into a conversation and people write to him: 'Kremlinbot, you jerk. You are paid!' That is hilarious."

"It seems to me now that the more comments we put out into the world, the more we harm the government," he added. "And nothing else comes of it. Isn't it ironic?"

He said the troll factory bosses have ordered them to counter this by writing things like: "I am a real person. I am really for Putin; why do you call me a bot?"

"But it is too late," Kremlebot wrote.

As for the English-language section of the factory, Kremlebot wrote that it has always been a key part of the operation, although they are isolated and secretive.

"The people they send there have a pretty good knowledge of English," he wrote. "They sit separately. They have their own coffee machine and we don't interact much. In recent years, that department just keeps growing, but it still has a long way to go to catch up with the Russian-language section."

Very few of the people working at the Internet Research Agency are truly committed to the policies of Vladimir Putin, he says.

"Only about 5 or 10 percent," he wrote. "The rest just don't care who they slam in the comments."

"But there is an interesting psychological point," he added. "When you start doing such work, you begin to search for ways to justify what you are doing. And most often, you find them."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Dmitry Volchek