The stereotypical internet troll is sitting at home bored, primarily interested in shit-disturbing for chaos’ sake. But in Russia, trolling has been professionalised, with troll workers paid for full-time stints perpetuating hoaxes and trash-talking online.
Writing for the New York Times Magazine, writer Adrian Chen discovered a Russian group best known as the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, responsible for a wide range of hoaxes and organised troll campaigns designed to make Russia look good.
The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes.
The “Agency” reportedly employed around 400 employees who posted content to a variety of social networks during their 12-hour shifts, from Russia’s VKontakte to Instagram and Twitter.
Chen talked to Ludmila Savchuk, a former agency worker and activist who infiltrated the group to expose it. Savchuk created online characters to push propaganda in a less stilted way.
One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.
Chen’s investigation into this professional trolling network connected Russia’s belligerent propaganda pushers to a hoax about a fake chemical spill in the US, and it also got him some bad Russian press after a pro-Kremlin news organisation tried to paint him as a neo-Nazi sympathiser.