The next time you venture into the dark netherworld of rants about Obama or Osama bin Laden conspiracy theories that is the internet comments section, you may be viewing the work of a professional "troll" in Moscow.
In The New York Times Magazine, journalist Adrian Chen writes a fascinating story about a pro-Kremlin company called The Internet Research Agency headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia. It's mission: Spread propaganda far and wide, from the discussion sections of news websites to Facebook comment threads.
Inside the nondescript building, twenty-something-aged employees work 12-hour shifts for great pay, while managers obsess over employees meeting their daily quotas of writing political and nonpolitical posts, and hundreds of comments.
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of "technical tasks" — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
It's a fascinating story that should make anyone weary of reading anonymous comments on the internet. Though as BoingBoing notes, these types of organizations are not just a Russian product. China — and yes, even the United States — also employ people to do essentially the same thing.
But Russia's Internet Research Agency certainly takes it to the next level, as Chen writes that it had "industrialized the art of trolling."
"It's definitely made me more paranoid about, you know, what's on Twitter, what's on Facebook," Chen told NPR's Audie Cornish in an interview. "One thing that really struck me was how big of an impact, you know, a relatively small number of people who are working in a determined manner to shape the dialogue on the Internet can have."