The money wasn’t bad, but the work was demanding: posting up to 120 comments a day, over an 11-hour shift -- in chat rooms, on websites, and in social-media profiles belonging to specific Russian-language news outlets such as the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
“There were people who really flew at [the work] with enthusiasm, and then some who came to work just realizing that all they were doing was nonsense,” Sergei K., a former employee of a Russian company that became known as the “Russian troll factory,” told RFE/RL in an interview.
Such was life at the St. Petersburg firm whose registered name used to be the Internet Research Agency and which earned its moniker by pumping out conspiracy theories, half-truths, trolling social-media posts, and other misinformation.
Owned by a St. Petersburg businessman named Yevgeny Prigozhin, the operation gained international infamy when it was specifically identified in the 2017 U.S. intelligence report on Russian efforts to interfere in the previous year’s presidential election.
“Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social-media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social-media users in the United States,” a follow-up report by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said.
U.S. Cyber Command, one of the U.S. government’s main cyberagencies, claimed it knocked the “troll factory” off-line during the 2018 U.S. congressional elections.
The company is still in operation, and media reports and other investigations have documented how Prigozhin has diversified his efforts to include funding private military mercenary companies, setting up operations in Africa and elsewhere.
The “troll factory,” however, has seen its influence wane as social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter have gotten more sophisticated about blocking and removing anonymous accounts deemed to be trolls.
Even before the findings of the U.S. intelligence community, its influence had been diluted as ex-employees of the company spoke out about the firm and what they did there.
In 2015, a man named Marat Burkhard told RFE/RL’s Russian Service how the work was conducted. One Russian journalist went undercover to get a job at the operation and was later fired and filed a lawsuit claiming the working conditions and her contract violated labor law.
She ended up winning her case and was awarded 1 ruble in a symbolic victory.
'I Thought It Was A Dystopia'
Prigozhin has seemingly sought to conceal the legal ownership of the company, changing its name and registration every few years. At the time that Sergei K. worked for an outlet called the Federal News Agency (FAN), the company's name was Mixinfo.
FAN, which has multiple links to Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, has dismissed the notion that it is part of a "troll factory."
In a lengthy interview last week via the Telegram messaging app, Sergei K. told RFE/RL’s Russian Service he took the job in 2018 after a suggestion from a friend. It was easy money, he said, asking that his full name not be used to avoid legal repercussions from his former employer.
“I met people there who were convinced that the problem wasn’t that everything was awful in [Russia], but rather in the U.S. State Department and with the eye in the pyramid” he said, referring to a symbol used on one side of the U.S. dollar bill that is often a fixation for conspiracy theorists.
Qualifications for being hired weren’t demanding, he said, just a high-school diploma. But there were some people who had advanced degrees, including doctorates. All had to undergo a background check, he said; he was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
He said most people were paid around 40,000 rubles a month ($524); he made 45,000; others who worked longer and harder got paid more. The expectation, he said, was he would make about 120 comments during his shift.
The “factory” had many different departments, each comprising around 15 people and each dealing with a different external Internet or social-media company. One dealt with YouTube, he said, another with Facebook, and another with the Russian social network VK, which is widely used there. His team’s focus was comments on posts made by media outlets including RFE/RL.
One department was responsible for compiling databases with biographies of people deemed to be political enemies and then making a list of targets, he said: "There's a list of media outlets that, pardon the expression, need to be shit upon -- Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL's Russian Service) and Novaya Gazeta are at the top."
Another department created memes, including pornographic ones. These were sent around via messages and the trolls would then publish them in various places, Sergei said.
“At first, when I got there, I didn’t quite believe that it was real at all. I had a kind of culture shock. Orwell described how it works. I thought it was a dystopia, but in fact this is how it works,” he told RFE/RL.
In his department, Sergei said, they coordinated work via Telеgram and decided where to direct their efforts.
“You don’t just sit around gathering dust there; you bang on the keys, the same nonsense for 11 hours,” he said.
He said he and his colleagues would set up fake accounts -- for example, on VK -- and use a huge stack of cell-phone SIM cards in order to authenticate your account when you first set it up.
People would create fake names and steal photographs from other social-media accounts on social networks such as Odnoklassniki, another popular Russian site. Sometimes, the photographs were taken from people who had died, he said.
Then, they would edit the photographs slightly -- make them black-and-white, or flip them 180 degrees -- so as to throw off search engines, he said.
In all, he probably worked with more than 100 fake accounts, Sergei said. The fake accounts were used strategically: Having a teenage girl commenting on a nuclear arms treaty would look suspicious, he said.
People would also use virtual private networks -- VPNs -- to disguise their real location: A commenter could appear to be in Mozambique, for example, when in fact he was sitting in St. Petersburg.
Under the websites or social-media accounts of Russia Today, which is now known as RT, the “trolls” would post comments that were either pro-Russian or anti-Western.
“Go to a RT group on any social network. Day after day, they’re fighting for Mother Russia. Under any news, whether it’s about missiles, or the United States, or Putin, they’re everywhere, like cockroaches,” he said.
Sometimes “trolls” would be expected to respond to another “troll’s” comments or post, to give the appearance of a discussion involving two unconnected users, he said.
My Karma Is Ruined
Sergei told RFE/RL that Prigozhin himself never came to the building that houses the “troll factory,” but that his assistant did: “A bald man, 45-50 years old.”
In 2019, about a year after working there, Sergei said he began to get disillusioned.
“At first it was even funny. In our group, people openly mocked Putin himself, and almost everyone understood the absurdity of what we were doing,” he said. “It's like doctors who work with corpses, over time they begin to joke, relax, defuse the situation.”
But after a while, he said, his conscience began to eat at him; he was constantly stressed and had migraine headaches.
Asked why he decided to speak out about his former employer, he suggested it was something of an effort at atonement -- for the trolling he did and the lies he spread.
“I turned to [RFE/RL], because, having seen the kitchen of state propaganda from the inside, I understood why they [tried to] shut you up and spread rot so much,” he said. “They lie everywhere. Now, television makes me sick, and my karma is ruined for three lives into the future.”