Internet Troll Operation Uncovered in St. Petersburg
Published: September 18, 2013 (Issue # 1778)
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 MR7.ru 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 MR7.ru 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.
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