Inside the Russian Troll Factory: Zombies and a Breakneck Pace

A view of a business center in St. Petersburg that is believed to house the troll factory that meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.

MOSCOW — At first, new recruits to the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian troll factory, were thrilled by the better-than-average salaries they earned simply for posting on the internet. But one says he eventually realized that the work hid a darker reality: both they and their audience were meant to turn into zombies.

“They were just giving me money for writing,” said the former troll, a St. Petersburg resident who wanted to get into marketing or journalism but was drawn by the hard-to-match $1,400 weekly paycheck. “I was much younger and did not think about the moral side. I simply wrote because I loved writing. I was not trying to change the world.”

On Friday, the United States Department of Justice accused the Internet Research Agency and its senior employees of working illegally to meddle in the 2016 American presidential election, indicting 13 Russians and the companies linked to it.

In recent interviews conducted before the indictments, two former trolls spoke about their experiences. Neither man wanted his full name used, citing the threats and intimidation others have been subjected to for speaking out.

Both left the agency for different reasons — one troubled by the substance of the work, the other struggling with the breakneck pace to create fake content.

Aleksei, the troll from St. Petersburg, said he was among the first 25 employees hired. To get the job, he said, he had to write an essay on the “Dulles Doctrine,” a Soviet-era conspiracy theory that may seem obscure to Westerners but is well known to Russians.

That was a significant clue about what was to come. The Dulles Doctrine — born in a 1971 novel, and gaining new life after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 — was a supposed plot by Allen Dulles, the C.I.A. director from 1953 to 1961, to destroy the Soviet Union by corrupting its moral values and cultural heritage.

That, as the West has learned in the last couple of years, is precisely what the Kremlin and the troll factory set out to do to the United States, undermining faith in its electoral system by encouraging or even establishing groups that would sow domestic discord. Troll factory tactics included applauding Donald Trump’s candidacy while trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s.

As the factory got going, Aleksei said, the first task assigned to all new employees was to create three identities on Live Journal, a popular blogging platform. One was to be of very high quality in writing and content, the other two “marginal.”

They worked in 12-hour shifts, either day or night, and the assigned topics popped up in their email: President Vladimir V. Putin, or President Barack Obama, or often the two together; Ukraine; the heroism of Russia’s Defense Ministry; the war in Syria; Russian opposition figures; the American role in spreading the Ebola virus.

The key words and subject line were always assigned. At the time, the removal of chemical weapons from Syria negotiated under Russian auspices was a favorite topic. Aleksei recalled writing seven or eight blog posts about it.

“You had to write that 30 percent of the weapons had been removed, and the next day we would say that 32 percent had been taken out,” he said, adding that he had no idea if any had been removed.

Aleksei wrote for the Russian-speaking audience. The English-speaking trolls were kept apart, he said, but from their loud conversations in the communal smoking room, it seemed like they were engaged in similar work.

The English speakers discussed the best time to post commentary to attract an American audience, he remembered, and bragged about creating thousands of fake social media accounts.

Aleksei was interviewed before the indictments were handed up and he cut off contact within days of the interview. He had said that he did not know much about the company management and that he had never seen Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the man the United States accused of creating the agency and nicknamed “Putin’s cook” because he got his start in the restaurant and catering business.

The former troll did identify Dzheykhun N. O. Aslanov — called “Jay” around the firm — as the head of the trolls running the coverage of the American elections, an assertion that Mr. Aslanov has denied.



Inside Russia’s Network of Bots and Trolls

How do bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence U.S. elections? We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work.

They hide behind Twitter hashtags, Facebook ads and fake news stories. They’re the work of bots and trolls, and one of the most skilled countries at deploying them is Russia. So how do these entities actually work to spread disinformation? We asked two experts. This is St. Petersburg-based activist Ludmila Savchuk. She has tracked disinformation campaigns and even gone undercover to learn how they work. And this is Ben Nimmo, a London-based analyst who focuses on information warfare. Let’s define what’s what. A bot is short for robot. It’s an automated social media account that operates without human intervention. During the 2016 presidential election, suspected Russian operators created bots on Twitter to promote hashtags like #WarAgainstDemocrats. A troll is an actual human being, motivated by passion or a paycheck to write social media posts that push an agenda. In 2015, Savchuk worked undercover for over two months at a troll factory in Russia that has gone by many names, including Glavset and the Internet Research Agency. Troll accounts are usually anonymous or pretend to be someone else, like hipsters or car repairmen. But it can even get stranger. Trolls can also set up bots to amplify a message. Facebook is one common platform for Russian trolls and bots, which, in 2016, used fake accounts to influence U.S. elections. Here’s how some experts think that played out. American officials suspect Russian intelligence agents of using phishing attacks to obtain emails damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign. They then, allegedly, created a site called to publish them. A troll on Facebook, using the name Melvin Redick, was one of the first to hype the site, saying it contained the “hidden truth about Hillary Clinton.” An army of bots on Twitter then promoted the DC Leaks, and in one case, even drove a #HillaryDown hashtag into a trending topic. Facebook believes that ads on divisive issues created by Russian trolls were shown to Americans over four million times before the elections. Russian-linked trolls and bots also tried to exploit divisive issues and undermine faith in public institutions. Federal investigators and experts believed Russian trolls created Facebook groups like Blacktivist, which reposted videos of police beatings, or another, Secured Borders, which organized anti-immigrant rallies in real life. “Today, Russia hopes to win the second Cold War through the force of politics as opposed to the politics of force.” How can you stop them? You can’t. Even Vladimir Putin seems to agree. But ID’ing their tactics helps contain their influence. If a suspicious account is active during the workday in St. Petersburg or posting dozens of items a day, those are red flags. Decode the anonymity. Look for alphanumeric scrambles in a user’s name, and try Googling its profile picture. Look at the language. If an account makes grammar mistakes typical for Russian speakers, or changes behavior during times of strained Russian-U.S. relations, then congratulations. You might have caught a bot or pro-Kremlin troll.

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How do bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence U.S. elections? We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work.

Aleksei said that two departments generated articles and tweets in English. On the Russian side of things, he said, the main thread running through the blog posts and the commentary was that “life was good in Russia under Putin and it was bad in the U.S. under Obama.”

On domestic issues, the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny was a favorite target. The Russian annexation of Crimea was always presented as an historical achievement for Mr. Putin that opened new horizons for Russia.

“If things were not great before, now we would start living really well,” was the general theme, he said.

Once a blog post was created, the troll exclaimed, “Then the magic began!”

The computers were designed to forward the post to the agency’s countless fake accounts, opening and closing the post to create huge numbers of fake page views.

After the initial excitement of his new job wore off, Aleksei began to realize that much of the commentary was garbage, with the same themes repeated endlessly. “It was like turning people into zombies by repeating: ‘Everything is good, everything is good. Putin is good, Putin is good,’” he said.

In his nearly two years the staff around him had mushroomed from a few dozen to over 1,000, but by the middle of 2015 he had decided to leave.

The work began to trouble him. “If I went first because they paid a lot of money for nothing, when I left I started to understand what I was doing and it was bad,” he said

Not everyone had the same reaction, he noted. Some seemed brainwashed by the material. “They became cheerleaders for the regime,” he said.

Sergei, 30, now a furniture salesman, was one of those.

With only a high school education, he was thrilled to discover that he could earn good money — he said he was actually handed cash in an envelope for part of his weekly salary — without much effort.

“I was 25 years old and knew nothing about politics,” said Sergei, who arranged for a rendezvous in a St. Petersburg food court so that he could confirm from afar that the meeting was with a foreign journalist.

Working in a room with about 40 other people, he received a stream of blog posts by other agency writers. His job was to add comments and to share the posts on other social media platforms. He said everyone had a quota of at least 80 comments and 20 shares a day.

“The main idea was to work on people’s thinking, to raise patriotism among the Russian people and to portray the U.S. negatively,” Sergei said.

The comments were supposed to be original, something he struggled with, particularly as the articles all began to sound identical even if written by different authors. He had a hard time fulfilling his quota, he said. Hired in October 2013, he left in March 2014, he said.

The job changed him.

“Of course I became more patriotic,” he said. He realized, he said, just how much Russia had to struggle against foreign powers, mostly the United States, who sought to control its natural resources.

From the blog posts, Sergei said he learned that just a few families like the Rockefellers, the Morgans and the Rothschilds controlled much of the wealth in the United States, and that their banks charged rapacious interest rates.

“I began to be more aware of the reasons for the world’s problems,” he said. “I now believe that the world evil is the top elite who control the Federal Reserve system in the United States.”

Reached by telephone after the indictments were announced, Sergei said he had not heard about them.

Aleksei said that ultimately, the managers demanded that the trolls do more and more by rote, even as the audience seemed to grow more jaded and paid less attention to what they wrote.

“If there was some creativity at the beginning,” he said, “by the end that creative part was gone and we were all like robots.”

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