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Attack of the Russian Troll Army: Top Secret Documents Reveal American Websites Targeted By Russian Trolls

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Russia’s campaign to shape international opinion around its invasion of Ukraine has extended to recruiting and training a new cadre of online trolls that have been deployed to spread the Kremlin’s message on the comments section of top American websites.

Plans attached to emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker collective show IT managers reporting on a new ideological front against the West in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily. The bizarre hive of social media activity appears to be part of a two-pronged Kremlin campaign to claim control over the internet, launching a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion as it cracks down on internet freedom at home.

“Foreign media are currently actively forming a negative image of the Russian Federation in the eyes of the global community,” one of the project’s team members, Svetlana Boiko, wrote in a strategy document. “Additionally, the discussions formed by comments to those articles are also negative in tone.

“Like any brand formed by popular opinion, Russia has its supporters (‘brand advocates’) and its opponents. The main problem is that in the foreign internet community, the ratio of supporters and opponents of Russia is about 20/80 respectively.”

The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.

They are to post messages along themes called “American Dream” and “I Love Russia.” The archetypes for the accounts are called Handkerchief, Gay Turtle, The Ghost of Marius the Giraffe, Left Breast, Black Breast, and Ass, for reasons that are not immediately clear.

According to the documents, which are attached to several hundred emails sent to the project’s leader, Igor Osadchy, the effort was launched in April and is led by a firm called the Internet Research Agency. It’s based in a Saint Petersburg suburb, and the documents say it employs hundreds of people across Russia who promote Putin in comments on Russian blogs.

Despite efforts to hire English teachers for the trolls, most of the comments are written in barely coherent English. “I think the whole world is realizing what will be with Ukraine, and only U.S. keep on fuck around because of their great plans are doomed to failure,” reads one post from an unnamed forum, used as an example in the leaked documents. The trolls appear to have taken pains to learn the sites’ different commenting systems. A report on initial efforts to post comments discusses the types of profanity and abuse that are allowed on some sites, but not others.

Russia’s “troll army” is just one part of a massive propaganda campaign the Kremlin has unleashed since the Ukrainian crisis exploded in February. Russian state TV endlessly asserts that Kiev’s interim government is under the thumb of “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” intent on oppressing Russian-speaking Ukrainians and exerts a mesmerizing hold on many in the country’s southeast, where the channels are popular. Ukraine has responded by banning all Russian state channels, barring entry to most Russian journalists, and treats some of the more obviously pro-rebel Russian reporters as enemy combatants.

The trolling project’s finances are appropriately lavish for its considerable scale. A budget for April 2014, its first month, lists costs for 25 employees and expenses that together total over 5,000. The Internet Research Agency itself, founded last summer, now employs over 600 people and, if spending levels from December 2013 to April continue, is set to budget for over 0 million in 2014, according to the documents. Half of its budget is earmarked to be paid in cash.

Two Russian media reports partly based on other selections from the documents attest that the campaign is directly orchestrated by the Kremlin. Business newspaper Vedomosti, citing sources close to Putin’s presidential administration, said last week that the campaign was directly orchestrated by the government and included expatriate Russian bloggers in Germany, India, and Thailand. Novaya Gazeta claimed this week that the campaign is run by Evgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur who catered Putin’s re-inauguration in 2012. Prigozhin has reportedly orchestrated several other elaborate Kremlin-funded campaigns against opposition members and the independent media. Emails from the hacked trove show an accountant for the Internet Research Agency approving numerous payments with an accountant from Prigozhin’s catering holding, Concord.

Kremlin supporters’ increased activity online over the Ukraine crisis suggests Russia wants to encourage dissent in America at the same time as stifling it at home. The online offensive comes on the heels of a series of official laws and signals clearly suggesting Russia wants to tighten the screws on its vibrant independent web. In the last 30 days alone, Putin claimed the internet was and always had been a “CIA project” and then signed a law that imposes such cumbersome restrictions on blogs and social media as to make free speech impossible.

“There’s no paradox here. It’s two sides of the same coin,” Igor Ashmanov, a Russian internet entrepreneur known for his pro-government views, said. “The Kremlin is weeding out the informational field and sowing it with cultured plants. You can see what will happen if they don’t clear it out from the gruesome example of Ukraine.”

Pro-Russian accounts have been increasingly visible on social networks since Ukraine’s political crisis hit fever pitch in late February. One campaign, “Polite People,” promoted the invasion of Crimea with pictures of Russian troops posing alongside girls, the elderly, and cats. Russia’s famously internet-shy Foreign Ministry began to viciously mock the State Department’s digital diplomacy efforts. “Joking’s over,” its Facebook page read on April 1.

Other accounts make clear attempts to influence Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the country’s restive southeast. Western officials believe many of the Twitter accounts are operated by Russian secret services. One was removed after calling for and celebrating violent attacks on a bank owned by a virulently anti-Putin Ukrainian oligarch.

“This is similar to media dynamics we observed in the Syrian civil war,” said Matt Kodama, an analyst at the web intelligence firm Recorded Future. “Russian news channels broke stories that seemed tailored-made to reinforce pro-Assad narratives, and then Syrian social media authors pushed them.”

The documents align with the Kremlin’s new attention to the internet. Putin, who swiftly monopolized control over television after coming to power in 1999 and marginalized dissent to a few low-circulation newspapers, largely left the “Runet” alone during his first two terms in power, allowing it to flourish as a parallel world free of censorship and skewed toward the educated urban middle class.

The current internet crackdown comes after protests by middle-class Muscovites against Putin’s return to the presidency in early 2012, which were largely organized on Facebook and Twitter. All but a few officials have since abandoned the medium and many did so en masse last fall, raising suspicions they did so on Kremlin orders.
“Putin was never very fond of the internet even in the early 2000s,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who specializes in security services and cyber issues. “When he was forced to think about the internet during the protests, he became very suspicious, especially about social networks. He thinks there’s a plot, a Western conspiracy against him. He believes there is a very dangerous thing for him and he needs to put this thing under control.”

Last month, the deputy head of the Kremlin’s telecommunications watchdog said Twitter was a U.S. government tool and threatened to block it “in a few minutes” if the service did not block sites on Moscow’s request. Though the official received a reprimand (as well as a tongue-lashing on Facebook from Medvedev), the statement was widely seen as a trial balloon for expanding censorship. Twitter complied with a Russian request for the first time the following Monday and took down a Ukrainian nationalist account.

A new law that comes into effect in August also forces bloggers with more than 3,000 followers to register with the government. The move entails significant and cumbersome restrictions for bloggers, who previously wrote free of Russia’s complicated media law bureaucracy, while denying them anonymity and opening them up to political pressure.


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“Attack of the Russian Troll Army: Top Secret Documents Reveal American Websites Targeted By Russian Trolls”