For six months, starting in the fall of 2014, I investigated a shadowy online Russian propaganda operation called the Internet Research Agency. The agency has been widely reported in Russian media to be the brainchild of Evgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and ally of Vladimir Putin. At the time, it employed hundreds of Russians in a nondescript office building in St. Petersburg, where they produced blog posts, comments, infographics, and viral videos that pushed the Kremlin’s narrative on both the Russian and English Internet.
The agency is what is known in Russia as a “troll farm,” a nickname given to outfits that operate armies of sock-puppet social-media accounts, in order to create the illusion of a rabid grass-roots movement. Trolling has become a key tool in a comprehensive effort by Russian authorities to rein in a previously freewheeling Internet culture, after huge anti-Putin protests in 2011 were organized largely over social media. It is used by Kremlin apparatchiks at every level of government in Russia; wherever politics are discussed online, one can expect a flood of comments from paid trolls.
When I began researching the story, I assumed that paid trolls worked by relentlessly spreading their message and thus indoctrinating Russian Internet users. But, after speaking with Russian journalists and opposition members, I quickly learned that pro-government trolling operations were not very effective at pushing a specific pro-Kremlin message—say, that the murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was actually killed by his allies, in order to garner sympathy. The trolls were too obvious, too nasty, and too coördinated to maintain the illusion that these were everyday Russians. Everyone knew that the Web was crawling with trolls, and comment threads would often devolve into troll and counter-troll debates.
The real effect, the Russian activists told me, was not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space. One activist recalled that a favorite tactic of the opposition was to make anti-Putin hashtags trend on Twitter. Then Kremlin trolls discovered how to make pro-Putin hashtags trend, and the symbolic nature of the action was killed. “The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” the opposition activist Leonid Volkov told me.
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