Inside Russia’s ‘troll factory’: The Internet Research Agency accused of interfering in the US election

In 2015, Marat Burkhardt decided to try out for a better-paid position, writing in English rather than Russian, at the St Petersburg-based internet company where he worked.

The topic he was given for his 30-minute English writing test hinted at what kind of work his employer’s  “American department” would be doing over the next 12 months.

“It was a text prompt to write about Hillary Clinton’s chances in the presidential election in the United States,” he told The Telegraph. “I wrote that it would be great if the United States elected a woman for the first time. I said she has every chance, the Democratic Party is behind her. The choice is up to the American people.”

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the job: Mr Burkhardt’s employer, the Internet Research Agency, is believed to have been the engine of a secret Kremlin campaign to help Donald Trump win the election.

The full scale of alleged Russian election meddling was revealed on Friday as 13 people who worked for the Internet Research Agency were charged and their alleged crimes recounted in remarkable detail.

Russian media reported as early as 2013 that a “troll farm” headquartered in an anonymous St Petersburg office block was vaunting Vladimir Putin and bashing Barack Obama in comments and posts written by fake people.

Facebook shut down hundreds of fake accounts connected with the Internet Research Agency in September, and admitted to selling the group advertising space.

But a series of interviews with former employees and the American activists they duped has revealed that the true extent of their reach into the 2016 election was far larger than even Facebook has admitted.

Impersonating Americans of all stripes, from Muslim and black activists to Tea Party campaigners and Texas secessionists, Russian trolls attempted to anger and divide voters with online posts and by organising protests in towns and cities across the US.

“Our goal was to set Americans against their own government, to provoke unrest, provoke dissatisfaction, lower (Barack) Obama’s rating,” a former employee of the troll factory’s American department told the independent Russian outlet TV Rain this week.

They frequently slammed Hillary Clinton over her email scandal, he added: “The main message was: ‘Aren’t you, my American brothers, tired of the Clintons?’”

In September, Facebook shut down 470 fake accounts and pages connected to the Internet Research Agency, which had spent $100,000 on ads around the time of the election, a potential violation of US law. Some of the ads reportedly  targeted Michigan and Wisconsin , key states where Mr Trump prevailed by only 10,704 and 22,177 votes, respectively.

Twitter has deleted 201 accounts linked to Russian entities, and in October Google reportedly found that Russian operatives  spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads  on Google, YouTube and Gmail.

Facebook has said the Russian-bought ads reached 10 million voters, but a Columbia University researcher discovered that posts on just six of the blocked pages had been seen by 19.1 million people.

In fact, the American department’s social media accounts were reaching 20-30 million people per week in September 2016, according to troll factory documents seen by the Russian news outlet RBC. One post from the blocked Facebook page South United featuring the six-gun-shooting cartoon character Yosemite Sam—“Like and share, if you grew up watching me on television, have a gun, and haven’t shot or killed anyone!”—reached 17 million users.

A former employee said the troll factory began “discrediting candidates’ images” for the US presidency in spring 2015. RBC reported that the American department employed 80-90 trolls by summer 2016 and spent £900,000 a year on salaries.

Former trolls said Facebook occasionally shut down their accounts, suggesting it could have been aware of the Russian troll problem as early as 2014. Facebook had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.

“It’s annoying. People have been talking about this for so long, and only now they’re starting to understand,” Lyudmila Savchuk, a journalist who got a job at the troll factory in 2015 to expose its activities, said about Facebook’s response. “Creating accounts posing as Americans isn’t a problem.”

According to Ms Savchuk, American department employees were the “highest caste” of trolls and worked on the fourth floor of the factory’s fortress-like building on Savushkin street.

The unnamed former employee there told TV Rain that his task was to “blow up the discussion” in the comments sections on websites like The New York Times and The Washington Post, trying to incite religious Americans with references to guns and gays.

The trolls also posted provocative false information on Facebook groups ranging from “LGBT United” and “United Muslims of America” to “Being Patriotic” and “Secured Borders”. According to RBC, the troll factory budgeted nearly £4,000 a month to promote social media posts, half of which touched on racial issues.

The final stage was to bring the unrest off the web and onto the streets: Accounts that Facebook has now shut down organised an anti-refugee rally in Idaho, pro-Trump rallies in Florida and anti-Clinton protests in Texas. The troll factory spent at least £2,500 a month to organise at least 40 demonstrations in the United States, RBC said, co-opting unwitting American activists.

Micah White, one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street movement, shared an email with The Daily Telegraph in which “Yan Big Davis” of BlackMattersUS, a suspected fake civil rights group now thought by some to have been run by the troll factory, asked him in stilted English to promote an event in support of imprisoned members of the MOVE black liberation group. Mr White, who said he believed the man was an African living in America, also gave an interview that BlackMattersUS published on its website.

“The goal was to integrate into American activist scene by interviewing me,” he said.

Conrad James, an activist in North Carolina, helped BlackMattersUS hold two rallies against police brutality in Charlotte, one of which brought out 300-400 protesters two weeks before the presidential election. Mr James told The Daily Telegraph that two black organisers he met from the group appeared to be Americans. A third organiser, a white man, didn’t say anything, he recalled.

“That was obviously now the intent behind it, was to rile people up, get people going, to make them attack, so that they hate the police, shouting vulgarities and cursing,” Mr James said, although he said he kept the rallies peaceful and polite.

More than a year after the election, the troll factory appears to remain fully operational: On a recent weeknight, more than 40 young people came in and out of the Savushkin building over an hour-and-a-half, stepping around a reporter and pointedly ignoring questions.

“We don’t know,” said one bearded man in English when asked whether the troll factory was in fact located there. Another said he had signed a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t talk about his work. A third gave a phone number that turned out to be disconnected.

When The Daily Telegraph entered the building, a bulky security guard grabbed him and pushed him back outside.

“Access here is by passcard only,” he said as he shut the door. “Do svidaniya.”

This article has been updated. It was first published on October 20, 2017.

Read at The Telegraph 

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