Welcome to the troll factory

by Toby Manhire / 18 October, 2013
An agency that pays "operators" to post pro-state messages online is exposed in Russia.
The murky world of paid online propaganda has been probed by Russian journalists posing as applicants for vacancies as “internet operators”.

They were told their work at the “Internet Research Agency” would involve writing blog posts or commenting under articles. Their task could be “shitting on [Alexei] Navalny”, an opposition politician, cheering incumbents, or attacking America.

This is not a call centre. It is a troll centre.

Journalist Andrei Soshnikov describes on the MR7.ru website, translated at the St Petersburg Times, being shown examples of work by agency.

They included “If Navalny comes to power, he will sell our country to hell! He’s simply sent from the US.” And, “Navalny is the Hitler of Our Time”.

Reportedly, the postings were to be “based on the given ‘vectors’ but look like they were written by real people, rather than generated by Internet bots”.

The task was described to Soshnikov this way: “Imagine you were asked to write about an Electrolux hair dryer, the only difference is that this hair dryer is a political one.”

The St Petersburg Times quotes Vladimir Volokhonsky, the editor of Novosti Kupchino website and an opposition activist, who “has been studying pro-Kremlin bloggers as part of his research as a psychologist into human behaviour in the blogosphere”.

“This is not a new phenomenon, the novelty is only that this time journalists managed to enter the actual work place of such an organization,” Volokhonsky said this week.

“The effect created by such Internet trolls is not very big, but they manage to make certain forums meaningless because people stop commenting on the articles when these trolls sit there and constantly create an aggressive, hostile atmosphere toward those whom they don’t like. These include commentary systems on the web sites of every major media outlet in the city that the trolls began to occupy a long time ago and react to certain news with torrents of mud and abuse. This makes it meaningless for a reasonable person to comment on anything there.”

According to Volokhonsky, the organized teams of pro-Kremlin bloggers and commenters first emerged soon after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2005, when protesters managed to have the results of the contested presidential elections annulled and a rerun arranged. Paid pro-Kremlin bloggers were associated with the Nashi youth movement created by the Kremlin at the same time ... Volokhonsky said that such blogs are frequently used to introduce a subject which is then picked up by the conventional media and presented as news.

The practice – sometimes called “astroturfing” because it attempts to simulate grass roots – is not new.

Here’s Olga Khazanoct for the Atlantic:

Paid, pro-government commenters aren't a new phenomenon in Russia, and similar practices are widespread in countless countries. In their Freedom on the Net report released last week, the NGO Freedom House said the strategy has been on the rise over the past two years, and is now rampant in 22 of the 60 countries the group examined. China, Bahrain, and Russia are [according to the report] at the forefront of this practice.

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