How Putin’s Cyber Trolls Spread Propaganda
Policy + Politics

How Putin’s Cyber Trolls Spread Propaganda

Reuters

Employees at Russia's Internet Research center work for 12 hours a day in 3-person "teams" spreading Kremlin propaganda online, acccording to a former employee interviewed by Radio Free Europe.

Workers at the St. Petersburg "troll factory" are tasked with clogging Russian municipal websites and forums with pro-Kremlin comments. To make their comments seem independent and legitimate, employees are given separate "roles" they must play while maintaining their online personae.

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"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," St. Petersburg blogger and former troll factory worker Marat Burkhard told Radio Free Europe.

"Then 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."

Their roles are designed as such so that private citizens reading the website see the anti-government "villain" ganged up on and shot down immediately with the "facts." The "team" sits together, and few spoken words are exchanged as they work furiously to meet their daily quota of 135 comments.

"A single comment isn't supposed to be less than 200 characters. You have to just sit there and type and type, endlessly," Burkhard said. "Our little threesome traverses the country ... and we create the illusion of actual activity on these forums."

Teams are given five keywords at the start of their shifts that they are then required to use in every single comment they write that day, such as "Shoigu," "Russian army," or "defense minister." Often, employees are told they cannot conjugate the keywords or embellish them in any way — making sure the comment has all five keywords is the most important thing, even if the comment itself makes no sense.

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This kind of empty pandering would insult the sensibilities of any legitimate writer or political expert. But since most of the troll factory's employees are, in Burkhard's words, "barely capable of formulating what's important about these stories," they are happy to proselytize on behalf of the Russian government.

"We don't talk, because we can see for ourselves what the others are writing," Burkhard said. "But in fact you don't even have to really read it, because it's all nonsense."

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

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