Details Leak From Inside Putin's 'Humourless And Draconian' Internet Troll Army

from the ministry-of-truth dept

With fifteen years under my belt writing about astroturf, think tanks, fauxcademics, and other dirty lobbying and policy tricks, I’ve always had a hobbyist’s fascination with propaganda, especially online. When done “correctly,” disinformation or guerrilla marketing is utterly invisible. When done poorly — you get more comedic, ham-fisted attempts at information control, like Scientology’s personal website’s attacks on the new HBO documentary “Going Clear” or, well, ISP-paid sockpuppets who insist they fight net neutrality because they just love internet freedom so very much.

Of course, the one-two punch of violence and propaganda has for some time put Putin’s Russia on another level of intellectual aggression. The Guardian recently penned a pretty fascinating interview with several members of Putin’s internet troll army, paid to spam forums, websites, and social networks around the globe with pro-Putin propaganda. Working in twelve-hour shifts in a nondescript building marked “business center,” hundreds of writers work in “humourless and draconian” teams dedicated toward supporting Putin’s worldview for 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. And it often works:

“The scariest thing is when you talk to your friends and they are repeating the same things you saw in the technical tasks, and you realize that all this is having an effect,? the former worker said.

Marat, 40, worked in a different department, where employees went methodically through chat forums in various cities, leaving posts. “First thing in the morning, we?d come in, turn on a proxy server to hide our real location, and then read the technical tasks we had been sent,? he said. The trolls worked in teams of three. The first one would leave a complaint about some problem or other, or simply post a link, then the other two would wade in, using links to articles on Kremlin-friendly websites and ?comedy? photographs lampooning western or Ukrainian leaders with abusive captions.

The staffers work around the clock creating and maintaining proxied, viable fake personas, sure to discuss their favorite music and recipes, peppered authentically with rants about the Kiev government being fascist. Hand in hand with tens of thousands of Twitter bots, they create a massive sound wall that makes Apple’s reality distortion field look like a nineteenth century circus performance. The Guardian points to websites like this one set up with Internet memes to make mocking Putin opponents that much easier:

“Many of them have obvious racist or homophobic overtones. Barack Obama eating a banana or depicted as a monkey, or the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in drag, declaring: ?We are preparing for European integration.? The trolls have to post the photographs together with information they can pull from a website marketed as a ?patriotic Russian Wikipedia?, featuring ideologically acceptable versions of world events.”

Of course, as Glyn noted earlier this week, the Russian government has moved to “clarify” existing law and is now declaring all internet memes illegal — unless of course you’re paid by the government to twist and distort the very fabric of online reality. It probably goes without saying that the United States certainly is no saint on this front (industry astroturfing or the media coverage of the Iraq war quickly leap to mind), but Putin’s frontal-assault on the internet is starting to make Orwell’s darkest predictions seem like playful childhood fiction.

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Comments on “Details Leak From Inside Putin's 'Humourless And Draconian' Internet Troll Army”

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Padpaw (profile) says:

Instead of side stepping how many other countries are currently doing this. I think this article could benefit if you didn’t make the focus of it on Russia.

Yes it is bad, but why is this only news because Russia has recently been exposed doing it? Why isn’t it newsworthy that the US and China and probably dozens of other countries are still doing this

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What you want is False Media Balance. The news story is that details about Russian Propogandists have been leaked to the media, giving us a peak inside that bubble. Now after discussing that you want Techdirt, in the name of balance, to declare other countries are doing this. Presumably you don’t want it to be just left at that sentence so Techdirt will need to source more articles about other known propaganda efforts, which means dredging the archives. Or Techdirt could avoid retreading the same ground its already reported on and just let you look back if you are that interested. It was newsworthy when it was reported on. Techdirt can’t manufacture more details for you.

Anonymous Coward says:

This story broke last month on Radio Svoboda (Liberty)/Radio Free Europe.

Their [url=]interview with Marat[/url] and [url=]previous article[/url] cover the propaganda operation in much more detail than The Guardian’s piece.

John B says:

Marat Burkhard

Surprised to see this on Techdirt. I’ve been reading your website for many years, and applaud your tireless reporting. Until now I have never felt the need to comment.

I have seen the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty article introducing us to a Murat Burkhard, who goes on to expose the story you and all other MSM copy and pass on as truth.

I would have expected a bit more from Techdirt. Perhaps some fact checking, perhaps a little more digging? I don’t know.

Who is Mr. Murat Burkhard?

You do not show his picture, but the RFE article does

Hmm. Could Mr. Burkard be the same as this gentleman:

In the Basel newspaper article ‘Mr. Burkhard’ is presented as Mr. Murat Mindiyarov, who lived in Switzerland from 2006 to 2010 and who, at the time of the article, works in a hostel and as a tourist guide.

Whence the name Burkhard? Apparently Mr. Mindiyarov has a friend in Bern called Roger Burkhard, and Mr. Mindiyarov is also well acquainted with a Anastasia Kirilenko, a France based employee of Radio Free Europe. I will let you draw your own conclusions.

I fear the real trolls in this case are at RFE/RL. Understandable that MSM just copy and paste anti-Russian propaganda. Shame that Techdirt does the same.

(No, I’m not based in Russia)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Marat Burkhard

You want conclusions or speculation? Whatever you call it, it seems Marat recently adopted the surname of his business partner, who is perhaps another kind of partner, the kind that would be a scandal in Russia, perhaps, but not so much in the West. Or perhaps it is just a friendly arrangement, an alias he hoped to use to distance himself and his family from the retaliation and character assassination that was sure to follow his revelations. Either way, his name change is hardly any reason to dismiss his story. Another conclusion/speculation is that after working in the Russian propaganda mill, he was eager to tell his story, and among his acquaintances is a RFE/RL insider, so either he pitched the story to her and she accepted, or she just happened to be talking with him and asked him for an interview. Again, no impropriety there; this kind of thing happens all the time. Why wouldn’t he talk to someone he already knows and who can get his story published? Completely ordinary and understandable. Meanwhile you are citing incomprehensible rants in blogs, digging desperately for dirt on his name, credentials, employment history, residences, acquaintances, business partners … ad hominem ad infinitum, with nothing even remotely scandalous to show for it.

Hmm, I seem to have fulfilled the role of the 2nd troll, presenting the voice of reason. Now let’s see if the game is played like they say… prove Marat right!

John B says:

Re: Re: Marat Burkhard

Well, I guess his story makes a lot of sense. Hired without a contract, cash in hand, nothing in writing, no pictures, no documents, and with Putin’s approval rating at around 80% in Russia, surely he needs to employ a team of internet trolls to see if they can get him up to 81%. And why bother carefully vetting those people. Just get them of the street! Anyone will do.

I didn’t think of the partner angle though in connection with the surname. That would actually make some sort of sense.

John B says:

Marat Burkhard

A few corrections and additions to my previous comment:

On submitting my comment it became apparent that I must have commented in the past on Techdirt, since my email was known to the system. I must have forgotten. Apologies.

Also, the gentleman’s name is of course ‘Marat’ and not ‘Murat’, at least if we assume at least that part of the story is true.

For those who can understand German, please see the following for more background info:

Here are extracts from the Bern companies register of 2 ventures Mr. Mindiyarov was involved with, linking him to Mr. Roger Burkhard:

Anonymous Coward says:

People interested in russian affairs knew this from a long time ago, when the head of internet propaganda had his mailbox hacked. There were lists of putinbots, payment, target lists, themes to be promoted, themes to be muddled and discredited. For example, there was proof of an organized campaign against one of russia’s top bloggers who frequently criticised putin.

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