The Trolls Who Came In From The Cold

A laptop computer and a newspaper show reports about the arrival of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden to Russia, at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, in June 2013.
A laptop computer and a newspaper show reports about the arrival of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden to Russia, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, in June 2013.

By Viktor Rezunkov

ST. PETERSBURG — Last May, Tatiana N decided she wanted a higher salary than the average journalist can expect.

After responding to an advertisement in the popular HeadHunter job-search website, she became a Kremlin-paid Internet troll. Tatiana — who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that her last name not be used — worked out of a 2,500-square-meter warehouse in the suburbs of St. Petersburg.

The job paid 40,000 rubles a month, significantly more than the 25,000-30,000 most journalists make. But it came, she said, “with pain.”

Tatiana joined a round-the-clock operation in which an army of trolls disseminated pro-Kremlin and anti-Western talking points on blogs and in the comments sections of news websites in Russia and abroad.

The operation, Internet Research, is financed through a holding company headed by President Vladimir Putin’s “personal chef,” Evgeny Prigozhin.

“So you write, write, write, from the point of view of anyone,” Tatiana, 22, says.

“You could be [posing as] a housewife who bakes dumplings and suddenly decides: ‘I have an opinion about what Putin said! And this action by Vladimir Vladimirovich saves Russia.”

The roughly 400 employees work 12-hour shifts and are split into various departments. Some focus on writing up themes and assignments, others concentrate on commenting, and others work on graphics for social media.

The daily assignments — shown in a document first published on March 11 by independent St. Petersburg newspaper My Region — are usually drawn directly from pro-Kremlin media and go into sometimes excruciating detail about the message the bloggers and commenters are supposed to relay.

One assignment instructed trolls how to frame the February 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov: Either it was orchestrated by Ukrainian oligarchs to frame Russia and harm Moscow’s relations with the West, or it was carried out by Nemtsov’s supporters as a “provocation” ahead of opposition protests.

Lena N, another former employee, says she stopped working at Internet Research after refusing to blog the company line about Nemtsov’s killing.

“It was necessary to bring people to believe that the killing of Boris Nemtsov was a provocation before the march and a murder carried out by his own [supporters],” she says.

Radio Free Europe

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