‘Our norm is 120 posts per day’ – the life of a Kremlin troll

The article was originally published in Radio Free Europe. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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SOFIA, (BM) “When I got there, I couldn’t seriously believe it was real at all. I had something of a culture shock. Orwell had already described how it worked. I thought it was anti-utopia, but that’s exactly how it works.”

This is what Sergei K., a troll from St. Petersburg, told Radio Svoboda. Until recently, he worked for the FAN agency’s local branch – one of the Russian “troll factory divisions.” It is funded by Evgeny Prigogine, a businessman close to Putin who owns a catering company.

Before starting work, future “trolls” are forcing to sign a non-disclosure declaration of what is happening in the “agency.” But several people have already broken their commitment. In 2015, Marat Burkhard, a former employee of the “factory,” told Radio Svoboda how he had to write comments on various topics in various forums. Then several more people gave similar interviews. One of them is the journalist Lyudmila Savchuk, who got a job to study the propagandists’ activities. She sued the company and won.

Several years have passed, but nothing has changed in the work of the “factory,” except that it has changed its address several times and continues to expand.

Sergei K. agreed to talk about how trolls work today, attacking Radio Liberty’s social networks. He provided us with samples of the assignments that the “Kremlin bots” receive daily and the reports – they are obliged to fill in tables where they write how many comments they have published within each hour. Some of these materials are offensive or obscene – one of the departments of the factory specializes in creating memes in which the faces of journalists or opposition politicians are mounted on footage from pornographic films.

Q1: Sergei, why did you decide to tell me about your work in the “factory”?

I turned to you because when I got to know the kitchen of state propaganda from the inside, I understood why they shut your mouth and hate you. They lie everywhere. Now I get upset on TV, and my karma is loaded for the next three lives.

Q2: How is the factory organized?

There are many departments, about 15 people sit in each room. One department deals with YouTube, another with [Russian social network] VKontakte, a third with Facebook, etc. Each department has ahead. Our department learned from the working chat in a telegram what are the areas in which it is worth working: RT, REN-TV, “Izvestia,” as well as the opposition “Novaya Gazeta,” Radio Svoboda, even “Stalingulag,” although their principle block quickly. We worked on these sites from different accounts. To create these accounts, you have access to a massive pile of SIM-cards, which is supplemented.

Q3: Did you work a lot in the social networks of televisions?

Yes, from RT to the Home channel. See on RT what the West’s comments are – it is immediately clear whose work they are. Join the RT group on any social network; they fight all day for Mother Russia. Under any news – about the missiles, about the United States, about Putin – they are everywhere, like cockroaches.

Q4: Apart from the departments dealing with social networks, what other divisions are there?

A department collects databases: personal files of the disliked, with compromising information for everyone. There is a list of sites that, sorry for the expression, should be shit; there are Radio Svoboda and Novaya Gazeta. The production of the particular department, which makes brutal memes, including pornographic ones, is used. The boys sit down, these memes line them up, and let them into the general work chat, and from there, we start throwing them. There are departments for everything. This is a very well organized structure. My head doesn’t fit what nonsense the people there are doing and what huge bucks.

Q5: How many people work in the “factory”?

I don’t know exactly, I haven’t been to all the departments, and they are in different buildings. No less than 150 people are on a daily shift in just one structure. If we look at them in their entirety, I think they are about a thousand people. Some drop the data; others distribute it among the departments, others make operatives in which they say who should work with what supports and what should not be done, what should be covered, and the focus.

Q6: What skills are required to get a job? And how do they know that you are not an agent of the enemy?

I passed a test in which I had to improvise comments on certain informational occasions. Their security service checked my databases. We filled out the work forms, and they immediately put me in a fight for words in the groups of RT, Izvestia, REN-TV, and the like. It’s not who knows what; you sit and write the same nonsense for 11 hours a day. All employees work in two shifts – day and night.

Q7: Do you need a diploma to get a job?

No, they didn’t want my diploma. It was enough to have a high school education and to be literate. All kinds of people go there. There are many educated – doctors of sciences, there are people without higher education and different intellectual abilities, but they all work on orders. They draw your direction, and you are just a performer, as an operator.

Q8: Don’t they only take young people?

No, there are even retirees.

Q9: And how much is the salary?

Some took 40,000 rubles (about 450 euros), and those who worked harder and harder – 45,000, 50,000 rubles (about 500 euros, 550 euros).

Q10: How many comments should you write for one shift?

The norm is about 120.

Q11: Marat Burkhard said that one writes a negative comment about something, and a troll sitting next to him writes something like a rebuttal so that the forum can give the impression that there is a real discussion. Does this practice continue?

Yes, from some fake profiles of our office were written compromising, and other fake profiles parried the same compromising. Kind of, there was a lot of activity – hoping that users would look at the comments below the news.

Q12: Is it true that the “factory” has the strictest security measures, that they carefully monitor the intrusion, that they look for embedded agents, and that they encourage denunciations against colleagues?

That’s right. I can’t say about the denunciations because, as far as I remember, there were no such cases, but the control over the equipment is absolute. Analyze what happened on the screen of some collaborators (select them).

Q13: How is the quality of the work checked?

Each comment (text and link) is entered in the shift report and entered into the database as a supervisor’s table. That is, if you have written a comment, you click on the extension, the topic window opens (the West, the media, the opposition, etc.), you choose your topic, and click “send.”

Q14: Is there a sure way to judge that a troll wrote a comment?

Of course, not every pro-Putin comment is written by a troll. We have enough convinced people, the so-called patriots. If you suspect you’re dealing with a troll, check out his profile. As a rule, trolls have closed profiles – there is support to be completed. Trolls use photos stolen from someone on the [social network] Classmates. They steal pictures of real people, give them fictitious names, turn them in a mirror so that they can’t be found through [the Russian search engine] Yandex. Or they somehow process the colors of the photo – for example, they make it black and white, making it difficult to find it. Look, you stole the picture, you idiot. Let me write to this man and show him your picture. Why don’t you explain who you are and what you’re doing here? “

Q15: Were there any cases in which the people whose photos were stolen protested?

“And worse than that has happened.” I once wrote a comment under a post on RT or REN-TV, and then I received a message from a girl: “Where did you get this profile? This profile is of my sister.” And I had no idea how to answer her. I went to her page, opened the photos, and realized that this was indeed her sister, who had recently died in an accident.

Q15: And how did the trolls get her profile?

“They just stole it.” It’s a nightmare; they take the profiles of dead people. Then, I felt that I had stepped on slop; I still couldn’t get rid of it.

Q16: How many profiles did you work with?

“More than a hundred.” When they removed them, they sent others to me. Each profile had its theme. It is not logical for a girl to write about the medium-range missile contract. So they took pictures of various men who had patriots on their foreheads and began to work [through them] on the subject of weapons. And the girl can act on something related to public works. That is, they try to portray real people, but in closed profiles.

Q17: And should the profiles be filled in with something for greater credibility?

The profile is considered acceptable if different friends are pushed into it, if there are photos, and they are uploaded not on the same date but during specific periods. Such profiles are priceless. They try to use them carefully so as not to block them.

Q18: Trolls are blocked everywhere.” Are new accounts continually being created?

Some sites often block. When we made attacks, for example, as in Radio Svoboda, our profiles evaporated. Not that we worked through a VPN.

Q19: Does everyone work through a VPN?

Of course. It says that the comment is from Mozambique, but it is actually from St. Petersburg.

Q20: Does everyone strictly follow the instructions? Is the initiative encouraged?

It can be creative, but after a conversation with the supervisor, if you have creative potential – welcome.

Q21: Did your colleagues have one or did they make a shift for 40,000 a month?

It was different. Some people could fly with enthusiasm, but some just made the shift, realizing they were doing nonsense—all kinds of people. There I also met people who were convinced that the problem was not that everything was the other way around here, but that the problem was with the US State Department and the eye in the pyramid.

Q22: Were there any cases of dismissal or punishment for political unreliability?

“I’ve never seen one like it.” The only thing they could do to us left us without bonuses.

Q23: In [telegram channel], Kremlebot wrote that workers do not use the word “troll” itself in the “factory.” What did you call each other?

Well, that’s right – “trolls.” I don’t know, maybe the people in our department were bolder. We did that after all – we wrote unpleasant things, sometimes very offensive. In war, as in action, you must flood people with slop.

Q24: Aren’t there any bans on anything?” Is profanity encouraged?

“You can play with swear words differently, as long as they don’t block you.” We had people who didn’t bother to swear.

Q25: Does the fact that the “factory” is in St. Petersburg affect the work? Do you have to write a lot on St. Petersburg topics and work in local forums?

Yes, especially for Governor Beglov. As soon as they appointed him, they gave us a bunch of props. We had to describe his achievements, to tell how he was victorious everywhere. If someone writes on the Internet that his face is crooked, we had to answer: “look at her in the mirror, the man is working; we value him not because of his appearance, but because of his deeds.” In the report, we had to add this comment as the hashtag “Beglov – appearance.” We defended Beglov’s mustache; we wrote how carefully he cut them. Once, we decided to take the initiative and play with his surname – his name is Beglov because he runs fast on every track and manages to cope everywhere. But then we found ourselves in opposition – we told them that his name was Beglov because he avoided problems. And we stopped with this support. Do you understand how absurd but at the same time powerful system this is? I was just crazy about how the system organized everything.

Q26: It often makes an impression that trolls attack a specific post.

Yes, it is attacked on order. If you write something awkward about [Evgeny Prigogine, who has the nickname] “Putin’s cook,” you’ll immediately pour tons of shit. Memes and threats are flying – on VKontakte, YouTube and Instagram. They have accumulated both profiles and cartridges. Here’s an example of a meme: “Oh, I’ve done some shit!” We look at the sole, and it says: “Novaya Gazeta” or Radio Svoboda. The boys work with imagination.

Q27: Did Prigogine himself come to the office?

No, he did not come to our office; why should he look after the slaves? Only his assistant came. I can’t remember his name, but he was also bald, 45-50 years old. Everyone was afraid of him, though they had nothing to fear but the loss of their jobs.

Q28: When did you realize you didn’t want to do this?

In the beginning, it was even fun. The team was joking with the same Putin, and everyone understood the absurdity of what they were doing, of polishing the image of power. But work brings money. The doctors who work with corpses start joking, relaxing, diluting the situation. After a while, I stopped feeling tense, but then my conscience began to bite. I came back blown away from work. I felt overwhelmed by remorse and stress, leaving like a migraine. But obviously, there is some mental protection, the orgasm has to cool down somehow, so I started laughing at it all more often. One who has not seen how this works can hardly imagine that older people sit and deal with such nonsense.

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