view counter

The Russian connection“Our task was to set Americans against their own government”: Russian troll-farm operative

Published 18 October 2017

New information about the operation of a Russian “troll farm” and its role in Russia’s disinformation dissemination system, sheds new light on Russia’s broad effort to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential race. The fake stories and false news created and disseminated to millions of American voters by the operatives at the Internet Research Agency (IRA), in the words of an IRA operative, aimed to “rock the boat” on divisive issues like race relations, gun control, immigration, and LGBT rights. The IRA also used the internet to hire 100 American activists to hold 40 rallies in different U.S. cities. These activists did not know they were working for a Russian government agency, and the people who came to the rallies were unaware that they were taking part in Russian-organized and financed events.

New information about the operation of a Russian “troll farm” located on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, and its role in Russia’s disinformation dissemination system, sheds new light on Russia’s broad effort to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential race.

A former operative at the troll farm who went by the name of “Maxim,” or Max, was interviewed by the independent Russian news outlet Dozhd, speaking of his experience working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm which has been the subject of several investigative reports. The function of IRA is to spread pro-Russian propaganda and sow political discord in nations regarded by the Kremlin as hostile to Russia.

CNN reported that secretive IRA is bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

An investigation conducted by Russian news agency RBC and detailed by Meduza found that about athird of the IRA’s staff was working full-time on different ways to interfere in the U.S. political discourse during the 2016 election, according to.

The IRA, Max told Dozhd, consisted of a “Russian desk” and a “foreign desk.” The Russian desk was primarily made up of bots and trolls which used fake social-media accounts to flood the internet with pro-Trump agitprop and made-up news throughout the campaign, especially in the days leading up to the 8 November election.

The foreign desk, where Max had worked, had a more sophisticated purpose, according to Max. “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They’ll even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff,” he told Dozhd. In fact, those who worked for the foreign desk were explicitly restricted from spreading pro-Russia propaganda. Rather, Max said, their job was more qualitative and was geared toward understanding the “nuances” of American politics to “rock the boat” on divisive issues like gun control and LGBT rights.

Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he added. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”

According to CNN, the IRA had an entire department, called the “Department of Provocations,” which was dedicated to that goal: its primary objective was to disseminate fake news and sow discord in the West.

Business Insider reports that that the troll farm also had its own “Facebook desk,” whose function was to push back against Facebook’s administrators who deleted the troll farm’s fake accounts as these accounts began gaining traction. When IRA employees argued against having their accounts deleted, Max said, Facebook staffers would write back, “You are trolls.” The trolls would in turn invoke the First Amendment right to free speech — occasionally, winning the arguments.

The Guardian reports Facebook is currently at the center of congressional and FBI probes into the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Facebook has turned over to Congress more than 3,000 Russian-produced bought ads.

RBC’s investigation found that in 2016, Russia’s propaganda network on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter could have reached 30 million Americans per week, and a Columbia University social-media analyst published research which found that Russian propaganda may have been shared billions of times on Facebook alone.

Business Insidernotes that Russia’s effort on behalf of Trump went beyond creating and disseminating fake news through Facebook accounts: Russian government operatives also organized events, rallies, and protests, some of which galvanized dozens of people. RBC found that the IRA used the internet to hire 100 American activists to hold 40 rallies in different U.S. cities. These activists did not know they were working for a Russian government agency, and the people who came to the rallies were unaware that they taking part in Russian-organized and financed events.