Putin Has Shifted His Internet Propaganda Army Into Overdrive
from the truth-should-not-be-relative dept
While propaganda is certainly not the exclusive territory of Putin’s Russia, it has become clear that Putin and friends — when not busy arranging accidents for administration critics — have taken internet propaganda specifically to an entirely new level. Back in April, reports started emerging detailing how Putin has built entire factories dedicated to soiling and seeding the internet with propaganda. Armies of paid sockpuppets get paid 40,000 to 50,000 rubles ($800 to $1,000) a month to create proxied, viable fake personas — specifically tasked with pumping the internet full of toxic disinformation twenty-four hours a day.
It has been fascinating to watch whistleblowers at these factories coming forward in recent months, detailing how they’re shocked by how effective such efforts are on shaping public discourse:
“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.”
Interestingly, one of the workers at these factories was recently courageous enough to put her name in print. Journalist and single mother Lyuda Savchuk states she knew she was entering an “Orwellian universe” when she took the job, but found things notably worse than she ever imagined once inside:
“I knew it was something bad, but of course I never suspected that it was this horrible and this large-scale,” she said in an interview in her apartment, which has colorful drawings on the walls for her two preschool-age children. She described how the trolls manage several social media accounts under different nicknames, such as koka-kola23, green–margo and Funornotfun. Those in her department had to bash out 160 blog posts during a 12-hour shift. Trolls in other departments flooded the Internet with doctored images and pro-Putin commentary on news stories that crop up on Russian and Western news portals.”
While the AP report states Savchuk quit, other reports suggest that she was fired only after speaking to the media. Not only that, Savchuk is suing the government, focusing on the lack of paperwork outlining her responsibilities or the reason for her firing (apparently the Russian government isn’t keen on a paper trail). She’s also organizing an activist retaliation to the propaganda efforts:
“The ?troll factory? operates based on very weird schemes, but all those firms are connected to each other, even though they are separate legal entities,? Savchuk was quoted as saying. Since her dismissal, Savchuk has been organising a public movement against online trolling called Informatsionny Mir ? a name that can be translated both as ?Information World? and “Information Peace.” “There are both opposition activists and supporters of the government among us, but we all believe that such methods of information war are unacceptable,? she said.”
Several of the reports note that there has been a concerted effort to hire more English speaking trolls to try and influence thinking in the United States as well, as Russia gleefully annexes the Ukraine and tries to defend its atrocious positions on gay rights. Internet Research, the company that runs the operation and is owned by a friend of Putin, has also taken to hiring more Serbian trolls to try and pull Serbia off of its trajectory as a future EU member. As has long been the case, this propaganda operates hand in hand with the use of violence to silence opposition:
“When Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed in Moscow in late February, the Serbian trolls were quick to react. “Who is to gain from this assassination but America? It must have been CIA,” was the dominant mantra that took hold in discussions on Serbian news sites. “Likes” went into the hundreds, while comments such as “Putin is responsible” received widespread ridicule.”
Putin’s problem? Propaganda usually only works well when it’s not easily identifiable as propaganda. Putin and friends appear to believe they can overcome this problem by simply operating on a massive scale, using not only its troll factories but tens of thousands of Twitter bots to shout nonsense from every internet street corner. Of course you’d like to think the pillars of truth have their roots in firmer bedrock, and on most of these issues (like gay rights) Putin’s simply throwing money at a thunderstorm. But on other issues (like eroding support for Serbian EU integration or fostering support for Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine), Putin’s army of disinformation jackasses have been worryingly effective.