The St. Petersburg Times   Issue #1778 (37)
Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Local News

Internet Troll Operation Uncovered in St. Petersburg

The St. Petersburg Times

Sergey Chernov / SPT

This posting, which says “You will bow even lower to Russia,” is alleged to have been initiated by the Internet Research Agency.

Local reporters have infiltrated a covert organization that hired young people as “Internet operators” near St. Petersburg and discovered that the employees are being paid to write pro-Kremlin postings and comments on the Internet, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture.

Journalists from the website and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper have reacted to a posting by St. Petersburg local Natalya Lvova, who wrote on the Russian VKontakte social network about an interview she attended on Aug. 30 at what she described as a “posh cottage with glass walls” in Olgino, a village in St. Petersburg’s Kurortny District.

According to Lvova, the office occupying two rooms reminded her of an “internet club with lots of computers and people.” Employees in one room wrote blog posts for social networks, while those in the other room specialized in comments.

“To my question about a technical task — what exactly should be written in the comments — a young guy, a coordinator, told me, briefly and clearly, that they were having busy days at the moment and that yesterday they all wrote in support of [Moscow acting mayor Sergei] Sobyanin, while ‘today we shit on Navalny,’” she wrote on her VKontakte page.

According to Lvova, each commenter was to write no less than 100 comments a day, while people in the other room were to write four postings a day, which then went to the other employees whose job was to post them on social networks as widely as possible.

Employees at the company, located at 131 Lakhtinsky Prospekt, were paid 1,180 rubles ($36.50) for a full 8-hour day and received a free lunch, Lvova wrote.

The ads have been deleted since the controversy broke, but were available as cached Google pages when accessed this week. Called the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, the company invited “goal-oriented people who like to surf the Internet” to join its “successful team.” “Now you’ll be able to surf the Internet and receive money for it,” it said. According to the ad, the positions of “blogger” and “commenter on articles, copywriter” were available. Bloggers were asked to write articles or a column, while commenters were to write comments on the articles. “The subjects are different, depending on orders,” the ad said.

According to the ad, after the three-month tentative term, the employers would receive a salary starting from 25,000 rubles ($775) a month.

Andrei Soshnikov, a journalist who visited the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency posing as an applicant, wrote in an article on the website on Sept. 4 that he was met by Alexei Soskovets, whose name was in the ads. According to Soshnikov, Soskovets is a young businessman who organizes festivals in the city and is associated with City Hall’s committee on youth policy. In 2013, Soskovets’s company North-Western Services Agency won 17 tenders to organize festivals, forums and sports competitions for the St. Petersburg authorities, including a tender for the transportation of delegates to the pro-Kremlin youth camp Seliger, Soshnikov wrote.

“Imagine you were asked to write about an Electrolux hair dryer, the only difference is that this hair dryer is a political one,” Soskovets told Soshnikov, explaining the nature of the job, Soshnikov wrote.

As examples of the Internet Research Agency’s work, Soshnikov gave a link to a posting called “Navalny is the Hitler of Our Time” by “alexmonc” posted on Aug. 28, ahead of the Sept. 8 Moscow mayoral election. The first comments to the posting read “Do not believe a word by Navalny (ruserk91),” “His words don’t mean a thing!!! He forgets what he says the moment he says it!!!” (koka_kola23), “If Navalny comes to power, he will sell our country to hell! He’s simply sent from the U.S.” (Vasily Sergeyev) and “America trains people to run our country. Navalny is a typical example of such an agent” (sorts2013).

Another blog entry he referred to as an example of the company’s work was a posting criticizing American films while praising Russian ones. “Each [American film] is a flawed film […] for, dare I say it, a flawed nation,” a blogger using the moniker onerus1 wrote on Aug. 26.

The blog by onerus1, opened on Aug. 26 and not renewed after Aug. 30, contains 19 postings and repostings against Navalny, including ones claiming that Navalny is gay (Aug. 29) and that Navalny was in favor of the Holocaust (Aug. 30), and six against the U.S.

“Friends, wake up! America is not our friend, but really the worst enemy!” the blogger wrote on Aug. 30. “Behind America’s smile and handshake, there is only its task of genocide and the complete destruction of our country.”

The other bloggers Soshnikov referred to were active when accessed this week, criticizing the position of the U.S. on the situation in Syria and praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to Novaya Gazeta’s local correspondent Alexandra Garmazhapova, whose report was published on Sept. 9, Soskovets said the blog postings should be based on the given “vectors” but look like they were written by real people, rather than generated by Internet bots. “For instance, you can write that the G20 summit is a great honor for Russia, but it’s inconvenient to get home [due to road closures],” she quoted him as saying.

Garmazhapova wrote that Soskovets claimed that the organization was active in several cities, including Moscow.

The St. Petersburg Times asked Soskovets to confirm or deny the reports in Novaya Gazeta and on the website, but received no reply as this newspaper went to press.

Vladimir Volokhonsky, the editor of Novosti Kupchino website and an opposition activist, has been studying pro-Kremlin bloggers as part of his research as a psychologist into human behavior 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. The alleged email correspondence of Nashi “commissar” Kristina Potupchik that was hacked and uploaded on the Internet in February 2012 revealed the names and amount of payments to bloggers for participating in pro-Kremlin and anti-opposition web campaigns.

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 funniest thing happened when Navalny ran as a candidate at the recent Moscow mayoral elections,” Volokhonsky said. “Sobyanin’s observers were told to open Twitter accounts and repost texts sent to them via text messages on [Sept. 8] election day. At one point all of them posted the phrase ‘This is the most honest election ever.’ One hour later, this exact phrase was broadcast by [Ekho Moskvy radio editor Alexei] Venediktov and the media immediately started to cite Venediktov. I had the impression that Venediktov might have received the same text message.”

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