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Facebook Manipulation Echoes Accounts From Russian 'Troll Factory'

Facebook's disclosure that a Russia-based operation targeted U.S. voters with advertising on divisive issues during the last U.S. presidential election campaign has focused the attention of investigators on a notorious Russian "troll farm" known as the Internet Research Agency.

The St. Petersburg-based firm is a shadowy organization that spreads false information on the Internet to support the Kremlin's strategic and geopolitical goals.

As a tool in Russia's "hybrid warfare" strategy, the Internet Research Agency -- sometimes formerly known as the Internet Research center -- employs hundreds of young Russians who conduct online information operations using fake social-media accounts in an attempt to distort political sentiment in Russia and abroad.

A Facebook official on September 6 told The Washington Post there was evidence that fake accounts used to promote the Russian-bought Facebook ads were linked to the International Research Agency.

Past RFE/RL interviews with former employees of the Internet Research Agency's operations paint a picture of a hard-charging operation that relies on a combination of methods -- from generating fake news, disinformation, and memes to building up networks of fake social-media accounts run by "troll" employees who flood web forums with posts in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.

St. Petersburg's Internet Research Agency
St. Petersburg's Internet Research Agency

Lyudmila Savchuk told RFE/RL in 2015 that the firm was targeting Russian and English-language social-media sites at the time. "There are hundreds of people, operating around-the-clock, writing thousands of comments, texts, and posts on all social-media sites and blogs," she recounted.

"They comment on media articles and write for social-networking sites, pretending to be ordinary people," Savchuk said. "They run blogs under false pretenses. They promote ideas they were given through verbal or written instructions."

"You write, write, write from the point of view of anyone," another former employee, Tatyana N., told RFE/RL in 2015. "You could be [posing as] a housewife who bakes dumplings and suddenly decides: 'I have an opinion about what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin said! And this action by Vladimir Vladimirovich saves Russia."

'Inauthentic' Facebook Accounts

Facebook's chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said on September 6 that $100,000 was spent for 3,000 Facebook advertisements dating back to June 2015 that were spread across the social-media network by users of 470 "inauthentic" Facebook accounts and pages.

"Our analysis suggests these accounts and pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia," Stamos said.

Stamos said the ads and fake accounts "appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum" in the United States -- touching on topics ranging from homosexuality and race issues to immigration and gun-ownership rights.

Most of the initial ads bought on Facebook in 2015 were geographically targeted and appeared to seek to identify individual Facebook users in the United States who might share the operation's narratives and themes.

"From there, organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable," according to a case study co-authored by Stamos in April about alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

'False Amplification'

In fact, the "information operation" described by Stamos matches descriptions of activities at the Internet Research Agency provided to RFE/RL in 2015 by former employees.

St. Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard said he spent two months working in a department of Internet Research that was tasked with clogging the Russian Internet forums with pro-Kremlin comments.

"It's a modern building, four floors," Burkhard told RFE/RL about the company headquarters in March 2015 after he quit working there. "There's a Live Journal department, a news department, a department where they create all sorts of images of demotivators," -- satirical graphics and memes that undermine their subject matter -- and "a department where they make videos."

Burkhard said the job of his department was an activity now referred to by security experts as "false amplification." Fake personas are created online to highlight and spread advertisements, memes, or other content that serves the Kremlin's agenda.

"Our department commented on posts" within Russia, Burkhard said. "People would write something on the forum, some kind of news, and our task was to comment on it."

"We did it by dividing into teams of three," Burkhard said. "One of us would be the 'villain,' the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we're doing."

"The other two enter into a debate with him -- 'No, you're not right; everything here is totally correct.' One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument. You see? Villain, picture, link."

"We create the illusion of actual activity on these forums," Burkhard said. "We write something, we answer each other. There are keywords, tags, that are needed for search engines. We're given five keywords.... All three of us have to make sure these keywords appear all over the place in our comments."

Burkhard said that as far back as early 2015, there were "special people working on Facebook" at the Internet Research Agency. "There are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments," he said. "They write and write all day. And it's no laughing matter. You can get fired for laughing."

Former employees say the hierarchical structure is as opaque as the composition of the Russian bureaucracy itself. "The underlings not only aren't allowed to approach management," Tatyana N. told RFE/RL. "But they don't even know who they are. They know only the little boss -- the so-called team leader."

Savchuk, who was reportedly fired for calling the firm a "troll factory" in 2015, said Internet Research "pretends it doesn't exist, although the whole world knows about its existence."

The firm is said to be funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg oligarch, restaurant owner, and supposedly well-connected Kremlin insider known as "the Kremlin's chef."

Prigozhin has been targeted by U.S. sanctions for supporting Russia's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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