The adventures of Russian agents like The Ghost of Marius the Giraffe, Gay Turtle, and Ass — exposed for the first time.
Russia’s campaign to shape international opinion around its invasion of Ukraine has extended to recruiting and training a new cadre of online trolls that have been deployed to spread the Kremlin’s message on the comments section of top American websites.
Plans attached to emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker collective show IT managers reporting on a new ideological front against the West in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily.
The bizarre hive of social media activity appears to be part of a two-pronged Kremlin campaign to claim control over the internet, launching a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion as it cracks down on internet freedom at home.
The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.
According to the documents, which are attached to several hundred emails sent to the project’s leader, Igor Osadchy, the effort was launched in April and is led by a firm called the Internet Research Agency. It’s based in a Saint Petersburg suburb, and the documents say it employs hundreds of people across Russia who promote Putin in comments on Russian blogs.
The trolls appear to have taken pains to learn the sites’ different commenting systems. A report on initial efforts to post comments discusses the types of profanity and abuse that are allowed on some sites, but not others. “Direct offense of Americans as a race are not published (‘Your nation is a nation of complete idiots’),” the author wrote of fringe conspiracy site WorldNetDaily, “nor are vulgar reactions to the political work of Barack Obama (‘Obama did shit his pants while talking about foreign affairs, how you can feel yourself psychologically comfortable with pants full of shit?’).” Another suggested creating “up to 100” fake accounts on the Huffington Post to master the site’s complicated commenting system.
“There’s no paradox here. It’s two sides of the same coin,” Igor Ashmanov, a Russian internet entrepreneur known for his pro-government views, told BuzzFeed. “The Kremlin is weeding out the informational field and sowing it with cultured plants. You can see what will happen if they don’t clear it out from the gruesome example of Ukraine.”
Gatov, who is the former head of Russia’s state newswire’s media analytics laboratory, told BuzzFeed the documents were part of long-term Kremlin plans to swamp the internet with comments. “Armies of bots were ready to participate in media wars, and the question was only how to think their work through,” he said. “Someone sold the thought that Western media, which specifically have to align their interests with their audience, won’t be able to ignore saturated pro-Russian campaigns and will have to change the tone of their Russia coverage to placate their angry readers.”
“Putin was never very fond of the internet even in the early 2000s,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who specializes in security services and cyber issues. “When he was forced to think about the internet during the protests, he became very suspicious, especially about social networks. He thinks there’s a plot, a Western conspiracy against him. He believes there is a very dangerous thing for him and he needs to put this thing under control.”
“The internet has become the main threat — a sphere that isn’t controlled by the Kremlin,” said Pavel Chikov, a member of Russia’s presidential human rights council. “That’s why they’re going after it. Its very existence as we know it is being undermined by these measures.”