In a nondescript building in St. Petersburg, a very Russian operation was being acted out. It looked like any other concrete, urban building. Except it had dark, heavy curtains and video surveillance.
Badass Russian journalist Lyudmila Savchuk, a 33 year old mother of two, infiltrated this shady building and reported on what she learned.
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She saw local activists being attacked with alarming frequency in St. Petersburg, and when she saw a job posting for a blogging position with the company rumored to be behind all the vitriol (the Internet Research Agency or IRA), she applied. She got the job.
For two and a half months Lyudmila worked at what is now described as a ‘troll factory’. What she recorded of her time there was much more organized and controlled than she ever thought possible. We have a common image of a pimple-faced bully on a home computer, creating memes to rile up comment sections on Facebook. But it’s much more sinister than that.
Business Insider gives us a glimpse into what she experience:
“Roaming the halls when she could — cameras were everywhere — Savchuk discovered the IRA was full of different “departments.” There was the “news division,” the “social media seeders”, and a group dedicated to producing visual memes known as “demotivators.”
Despite the division of labor, the content was remarkably uniform. The US, the EU, Ukraine’s pro-European government, and Russia’s opposition were regular targets for scorn. And then there was Russian President Vladimir Putin — seemingly no Russian triumph under his rule was too small to warrant a celebratory tweet, meme or post.”
Most of us in the US knows about the misinformation that was spread during the 2016 election. There was always doubt about the reach of these campaigns – but it’s clear to see that this was a well funded machine. There were rotating shifts at this ‘troll factory’ that kept the lights on and the wheels turning 24 hours a day. Lyudmila continues in Business Insider, saying:
“Each worker has a quota to fill every day and every night,” Savchuk says. “Because the factory works around the clock. It never stops. Not for a second.”
Lyudmila wrote blogs under a moniker ‘Cantadora’, who is a fortune-teller. As Cantadora, she used the occult (specifically astrology, crystals, and her own psychic abilities) to foresee Putin’s 2018 victory, and espouse the greatness of the Kremlin. The absurdity of this character could be amusing until you realize people believed Cantadora, and her blogging crusade was effective.
Where did this ‘troll farm’ come from?
The person fronting the money for the troll farm is allegedly Yevgeny Prigozhin – a catering, food services, and (most importantly) media tycoon. Prigozhin enjoys a close proximity to Vladimir Putin, and is estimated to be worth more than a billion rubles (15,649,550 US dollars).
Prigozhin has an interesting rags to riches story. He was released from prison right as the Soviet Union was collapsing and he quickly opened a hotdog stand.
Yeah, a hotdog stand.
Anyways, he obviously became very wealthy and enjoys huge government contracts in what some allege is in return for shadier operations behind the scenes for Putin. He is accused of being one of the main spin doctors by the US – he was 1 of the 13 indicted by a US Federal Grand Jury in the 2016 election meddling case.
After just two and a half months, Lyudmila stepped down from her troll duties and wrote a piece in her local newspaper. But it was a court case in 2015 that got the attention of the world. Business Insider continues;
“I acted like any journalist would,” she says. “Only, then I went further. I realized an article wasn’t enough.”
She even sued the IRA in a Russian court in 2015 — winning a symbolic 1 ruble victory over the troll farm for labor code violations.
The court ruling brought the work of the Internet Research Agency “out of the shadows,” says Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer who represented Savchuk in the case.
“I can make comparisons to Al Capone. The US government couldn’t get him for being a gangster but they could get him for tax evasion,”
Lyudmila continued to express her thoughts on social media, particularly Facebook, when she was mysteriously locked out of her account after returning home from a disinformation conference in Washington, DC.
There has been no official comment from Facebook, but Lyudmila has expressed the theory that the troll farm flooded the platform with complaints about her page. Then, all of a sudden, her account was back up and running 2-3 months later.
Another possibility could be that Lyudmila was targeted by the famous Facebook campaign to disable fake Russian accounts. This campaign has been in full force since the 2016 elections and the intense scrutiny on the social platform. Even some US news outlets have identified Lyudmila as a “former troll.”
This is obviously disheartening to any journalist. She worked to expose the platform’s weaknesses and to shine a light on the influence that social media has on us and on our politics. She outed Prigozhin and his troll farm – but to what end? His riches and special privileges under Putin have only grown, his position has only been more solidified. Lyudmila is no longer convinced that her work can enact change.
Prigozhin, smug at his indictment, said;
“The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see,” the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti quoted Mr. Prigozhin. “I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
It’s easy to see that he agrees with her. Even with Facebook’s feature, which allows you to see if you shared a fake article online, disinformation still spreads like wildfire. Maybe it’s the relentless firing off of blogs, memes, and divisive comments that flood these platforms. Thoughtful articles and blogs are hard to make at the same breakneck pace.
Will the trolls really win in the end?
— (((Tim Morton))) (@TimMorton2)
— Jan & Zack Beasley 💙🌊 (@JanZackBeasley) July 17, 2018
— Scott in Lunenburg (@Scott_In_Worc) February 22, 2018