Russians who have worked at Russia’s infamous “troll factory” corroborate much of what was written in Robert Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russian individuals and three entities last month for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Operatives working at the Internet Research Agency, a cyber-outfit responsible for executing Russian interference campaigns in both domestic and foreign politics, were directed to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements,” the indictment read.
“Specialists,” as they were referred to, created hundreds of social media accounts that appeared to be operated by real Americans, with the goals of growing them into “leaders of public opinion.” Specialists were divided into day- and night-shifts so that posts could be made at appropriate U.S.-time-zone hours. Hundreds of people were employed there, and the Agency was budgeted at the equivalent of $1.25 million a month.
One of the first things 43-year-old Marat Mindiyaraov noticed when he started working at the Agency in December 2014 was the despotic nature of the surroundings. I arrived there, and I immediately felt like a character in the book “1984” by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white. Your first feeling, when you ended up there, was that you were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line,” Mindiyaraov said.
“The volumes were colossal — there were huge numbers of people, 300 to 400, and they were all writing absolute untruths. It was like being in Orwell’s world,” he added. There were two shifts of 12 hours, day and night. You had to arrive exactly on time, that is, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Mindiyaraov’s job, he said, was to comment on the news, in ways that were flattering to the Russian government. At the time he started working there, economic sanctions had been leveled against Russia for their actions in Ukraine. The Ruble, Russia’s currency note, began to lose value. “I was writing everything that was the opposite: how wonderful our life was, how wonderful it is that the ruble was strengthening, and that kind of absurdity. That sanctions were going to make us stronger and so on and so forth,” Mindiyaraov said.
He worked on domestic issues because work in the “Facebook department,” which was understood to be targeting U.S. politics, required excellent English-language skills. “I failed the test because you had to know English perfectly. The reader must not have the feeling that you are a foreigner. The language demands were in fact very high, they were demanding high-end translators, basically,” he said.
Operatives would work in teams of three, he said. One would present a negative view point on a particular issue while another could counter it with a positive one. The third would remain neutral. “You got a list of topics to write about. Every piece of news was taken care of by three trolls each, and the three of us would make up an act. We had to make it look like we were not trolls but real people.”
Mindiyaraov said he began working at the IRA because he happened to be unemployed at the time and it was close to his home. Mindiyaraov knew from the beginning that it was not kind of place where he wanted to work long. “I realized quickly that this was the kind of place where I only wanted to spend enough time until I got my salary and I could leave.”
Lyudmila Savchuk, another IRA employee also confirmed that much of the information contained in Mueller’s indictment is true. “The most important principle of the work is to have an account like a real person,” she said. “They create real characters, choosing a gender, a name, a place of living and an occupation. Therefore, it’s hard to tell that the account was made for the propaganda.”
While Mueller’s indictment only names thirteen individuals, Savchuk believes many more people played an integral part in the operation. “Here they laugh about the news that 13 people could influence the elections in the U.S., but there were many more people doing that,” she said. “These technologies are unbelievably effective.”
Savhcuk says she became convinced of the efficacy of the IRA’s tactics when she began to see everyday Americans repeating the opinions planted by her and her colleagues. “They believed it was their own thoughts, but I saw that those thoughts were formed by the propagandists.
The Russian government has denied the allegations, dismissing Mueller’s indictment as “blabber.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked whether he would consider extraditing any of the named individuals responded incredulously. “Never. Never. Russia does not extradite its citizens to anyone, just like the United States,” Putin said. “Does the United States extradite its citizens to anyone?”
Mueller’s investigation continues, and the depth and breadth of Russia’s interference efforts are just beginning to be understood by Americans. Their effectiveness, however, is something former employees of the troll factory witnessed first hand.
“Who really reads the comments under news articles, anyway? Especially when they were so obviously fake. People working there had no literary interest or abilities. These were mechanical texts. It was a colossal labor of monkeys, it was pointless. For Russian audiences, at least,” Mindiyaraov said.
“But for Americans, it appears it did work. They aren’t used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it’s accepted to answer for your words.”