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.

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Comments on “Putin Has Shifted His Internet Propaganda Army Into Overdrive”

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Velociraptor says:

Your total evidence is trusting those who FAKED up the Iraq war.

Where are the WMD in Iraq? The “mushroom clouds”? The Iraqis living free from tyranny? What of the “sexed-up” reports? “Yellow-cake”, and all that? Do you even remember the excuses to murder a million people, displace millions more, and waste four TRILLION dollars invading a country that wasn’t a threat?

How can you possibly take this without doubt when you run articles that the FBI is funding and coaxing patsies so can arrest them as “terrorists”?

Of course YOU will claim that you’re not a paid propagandist, so you must just be gullible beyond belief!

Not a hint of suspicion that the former US of A has similar tools among the 850,000 spooks in “Top Secret America” that the Washington Post reported years back?

If you can’t at least read this alternate view, then you’re a sucker for US propaganda:
“Washington and its echo chamber media attack Putin for asserting Russian sovereign independence and opposing America’s imperial agenda.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Your total evidence is trusting those who FAKED up the Iraq war.

Except there is a miasma of ‘public relations’ around the reasons for the Iraq war.

The use of the words ‘propaganda’ and ‘troll’ indicate a negative framed response – did you dislike or disagree with the idea of pointing out the media efforts of the Iraq war were somehow disingenious?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Your total evidence is trusting those who FAKED up the Iraq war.

1st off – is it a list of facts?

You can be troll’ed with a list of facts. Because sometimes actual facts upset people and upsetting people is what trolls do.

How the US of A conducts itself is controversial and discussion is inflammatory to many who make their living off of these actions. And the conduct of the US of A could be considered off-topic or irrelevant to a discussion of Putin.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Your total evidence is trusting those who FAKED up the Iraq war.

“Washington and its echo chamber media attack Putin for asserting Russian sovereign independence and opposing America’s imperial agenda.”

The first is part correct, but its not just Washington, its mostly everyone.

after the word FOR, you assumption as to why they attack is incorrect. It’s more like, because he’s a punk, poser, closet fag, with problems.

That One Other Not So Random Guy says:

Re: Your total evidence is trusting those who FAKED up the Iraq war.

Calm down little fellah. Regulars here know Mike did a story on Ntrepid getting the contract for the software in our Troll Factories.

Maybe you should have checked before foaming off at the mouth:
US Military Kicks Off Plan To Fill Social Networks With Fake Sock Puppet Accounts

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Your total evidence is trusting those who FAKED up the Iraq war.

You’re not going to find a whole lot of blog audiences that are more distrusting of the government that here on TD. But thanks for providing the perfect example of the paid trolling by the Russian gov’t.

But I don’t hold it against you–I assume you are just another working schmuck with a family to feed, getting paid to do a job.

The propaganda. It's everywhere. says:

Re: Re: Re:

If the only information you’re exposed to about Ukraine is from Western corporate media, it’s understandable why you disagree with Anonymous Coward.

If you’re interested in gaining a broader perspective (and a much more interesting/probable explanation of events), please consider taking a look at these as a primer:

~Ukraine crisis is about Great Power oil, gas pipeline rivalry
~The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say”: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you

…and if you have some time, this vid provides some very interesting insigts: Propaganda, mass psychology, and the Ukraine

jameshogg says:

Ahh yes the unmistakable stench of Putin-bots and Russia Today. And the bile that is Russian nationalism.

And ladies and gentlemen, now I give you the leaders of your nonsensical “no blood for oil” slogan for the past 13 years, the Putin apologists themselves the Stop the War coalition! http://stopwar.org.uk/news/the-real-enemy-is-not-russia-or-vladimir-putin-it-is-the-hypocrisy-of-the-us-and-britain

I looked forward to seeing millions of you marching against the imperialist, irredentist invasion of Ukraine by a Putin-revived-Tsarist Russia when it happened. I don’t think it reached even a thousand.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

I Doubt They'll Fool Anyone Outside of Russia.

Backwards-looking, inwards-looking, totalitarian states always have difficulty producing people who speak English well enough for disinformation. A Russian who can speak English well enough to be understood, but not well enough to avoid being identified as Russian can always get a job as a janitor or garbageman in Portugal. And it’s good, steady work.

During the Second World War, the German commando chief, Otto Skorzeny tried to requisition English speakers, for his sabotage-troops, which would operate behind the Allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, but he only got a bunch of guys who had taken English in school. The Germans who were likely to speak English well were also likely to have emigrated to get away from Hitler and the Nazis. Many of them did serve– in the American army or the British army. During the battle, some of Skorzeny’s best English-speakers, dressed in American uniforms, drove up to an American POL depot (Army gas station), and asked for “Petrol, please,” when they should have said: “Gimme some gas, bud, and step on it!” They were immediately captured, worked over a bit until they “sang,” and then shot.

I take it we are all exposed on a daily basis to people on the telephone from India, claiming to be Microsoft tech support from California. They don’t even talk the way educated Indians talk. There are varying ways you can respond to them. I’ve taken to the “Vampire Laugh,” myself:


It seems to work as well as anything, and saves time.

Anonymous Coward says:

what goes around comes around

Four years ago, that same newspaper, The Guardian, ran a story about how the U.S. military was running secret operations trolling and propagandizing the internet. The article, “Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media” was also rather prophetic in predicting that other countries might respond in kind.

17 March 2011

The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.

The project has been likened by web experts to China’s attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.

The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as “sock puppets” – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organisations to do the same.


Though in reality, the story of that Russian propaganda factory that caught Karl Bode’s attention (assuming the story is even true and is not itself a counter-propaganda gig similar to ‘WMD’) seems very amateurish in comparison to the depth and sophistication to the US military’s sock-puppetry programs.

Joe K says:

Re: Re: what goes around comes around

Personally, I find the idea of Russian Troll Armies® far less disturbing than CIA assets posing as journalists.

But, you know, maybe it’s just because I am Political Officer in Columbus, Ohio division of Russian Troll Army®.

Seriously, dudes. The xenophobic fucktarderie expressed here makes me sicker than any “enemy propaganda” ever could.

Putin’s problem? Propaganda usually only works well when it’s not easily identifiable as propaganda.

Karl, take a look in the fucking mirror.

Socrates says:

Today Techdirt shame me

I recommend Techdirt to people. Even with articles like this, I will continue to do so. I value the insight Techdirt provides.

I have no issue with Techdirt lampooning Russian propaganda. (Propaganda should be exposed and ridiculed as much as possible IMHO.) The article is far to one sided for comfort though. I read “as Russia gleefully annexes” and cringe.

It stings worst when commoners read it, because it makes them even more susceptible to main-stream-media “rooting for the hero home team” versus evil. Commoners I sent here.

Rapnel (profile) says:

Re: asdf

Perhaps because the whistle blower said so? But if you’ll pay attention you might see that leaders, in general, aren’t quite taking this tube thing altogether seriously. The efforts to preserve the global power structures are only going to get more interesting. And when you need to take a break from watching leaders rip apart their own insides you can watch a MAFIAA cartoon sideshow.

From this angle Russia seems to be led by a bunch of thieves and murderous villain types, at the moment. Israel? Sheesh, if God wrote down that’s their land well I guess that gives them the right to, you know, kick shit over and plant a ranch. Great Britain? The “ban encryption” great britain? Snooper’s paradise great britain? Fuck those guys.

They’re all pissing in the pot that, by right of our own existence, belongs to all of us, and then some. Just ask one of the seven guys that practically own the planet, they’ll tell you, power is intoxicating, even for idiots that figure out how to charm crowds and countries.

MutuallyAssuredDisinformation (profile) says:

Is this news

Not sure why this article in the NY times would be news, except as a funny example of Russia doing this badly.

As others have commented everyone is in the game, and western powers more so than anyone else.

This reminds me the NY times articles on Chinese spying and their special “internet spy army brigades”, while America pressed the Chinese diplomatically on “their” spying problem. That all fizzled out and disappeared with the Snowden revelations.

I cant help see this article as another stone in the western propaganda campaign against Putin the last few months, and not really about social media propaganda.

People in glass houses…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The difference should be that western countries use other measures. In case of secret services, nobody has anything to let the others hear. However, Russia and particularly Israel and Great Britain are moving more of such issues to common law enforcement entities and that is problematic.

Be aware that russian politics is far less interactive with the population and the population is very apathic politically in Russia in general. It gives a lot more room for the government to act than in countries where the population would scream at the lack of transparency and “freedom”. Russians are nice people and the strenghtening of national unity is positive overall. Still, the political apathy, the nationalism and the difficult access for non-conform media in russian language is making the issue of Ukraine and “the west” into a propaganda war where the truth is the first victim. This is a glimpse of the darkest part of that.

This post is detailing an expose of a non-mainstream activity that would be lambasted no matter where it is happening because its modus operandi is to basically lie. Take “Russia” out of the context and the story would still be newsworthy on Techdirt.

Validator says:

This article is based on skillful fakery, and here is why:

First of all, Lyuda Savchuk is a MALE name, not a female one. Ludya means Ludovic or Lodewijk (in dutch) and Savchuk is ukrainian MALE family name. Otherwise it would end up with suffix -enkova or -ovova.

Second of all, how many eastern european folks command english language to such a high degree in order to pump/troll out 160 blogs daily, presumably in english langua-franca, in 12 hour shifts? About 0.1‰ of them. And they will CERTAINLY not do it for meagre peanuts of $800 to $1000 a month, that much I can assure you, if the official demand is so high for such workers.

Third of all, U.S. gov’t and its army leaders have already admitted they use sophisticated software and their own army of web trolls to spread their own pro-american propaganda, as mentioned by several other contributors in this discussion.

Which all means, that Karl Bode, author of this very article, has most likely unwittingly fallen for an ukrainian-made honey-pot propaganda trap.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Re: This article is based on skillful fakery, and here is why:

Um… Russian troll armies have shown up in many places (I remember seeing a post from the Guardian regarding it) so I’d say that they most certainly do exist. Also, your third point is irrelevant and even if you only make $1000 a month, you’re still overpaid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This article is based on skillful fakery, and here is why:

So the fact that a lot of people “seem to be saying” that these supposed Russian trolls exist is proof of their existence?

I think my very favourite part of this bullshit is how the magical lack of any tangible proof itself becomes “proof” of how evil and nefarious those Ruskies really are.

In truth, there is no doubt that the Russian government is trying to make themselves look good, but I doubt they’re doing anything we’re not.

By writing this horse shit, all Techdirt has done is shown that it’s writers are easily manipulated.

I expect more pro-US, anti-Russia propaganda from them in the future.

Socrates says:

Re: Re: Re: This article is based on skillful fakery, and here is why:

By writing this horse shit, all Techdirt has done is shown that it’s writers are easily manipulated.

I disagree

The main stream media hammer the propaganda. How can anyone know that it is untrue! To assume that it is easy is a mistake, IMHO.

I hold TD to a higher standard, Karl Bode included. TD does a better job than most. If Iran, Russia, IS, North Korea (and so on) is hammered, TD is often FOXed. This is an indication of the level of propaganda, not of TD being easily duped. Just look at other media and it is evident.

TD also revise its position when they figure it out, a hallmark of true journalism. Perhaps North Korea wasn’t responsible for the leaking Sony servers after all. TD also get it right from the start frequently, as in the Kim Dot Com saga.

Still, when people I send to TD read FOXed articles, it feels like I had recommended that they should trust main-stream-media outlets or “the president”. It’s uncomfortable.

There is telltale indicators to rapidly identify a lot of propaganda:
– excessive use of emotional content
– changing connotation while saying the same factual information. Like “he is patriotic”->US vs. “he is nationalistic”->everyone else.
– giving wildly diverting description for the same group to invoke different emotion. Like “US bombs the terror group IS” vs. “Syria bombs the ‘opposition'”. Giving the impression that US stem the exodus of refugees to Europa while the Syrian government is the cause of the exodus. Anyone that checks would find that any opposition worth mentioning in Syria is the IS, and would instantly know that the lie is intentional.

Socrates says:

Re: This article is based on skillful fakery, and here is why:

To me, the fakery seams somewhat overdone, with excessive use of emotion and even abuse of the “workers”. But I notice that this is the standard modus operandi for these frauds.

Still, it is not quite at the level of “Iraki soldiers forcing their way into premature wings of hospitals, throwing the infants at the floor, and then stealing the incubators.” And told by the eye witness nurse herself. And retold by presidents.

Or “Polish soldiers shooting border guards”

This is often the precursor for war

Anonymous Coward says:

How is this different than the liberal media in the US?

The majority of the lamestream media in the US is in the backpocket of the Dems, so there is little difference here. Just look at the debates during Obama’s re-election campaign. He was so used to being given softball questions that he couldn’t answer the hard questions in the debate and got slaughtered by Romney.

blackturtle.us (profile) says:

Media Bias Regarding Russia

Normally I find Techdirt insightful, but this article is extremely disappointing. Fortunately, a number of commenters have done a good job of countering this horribly lame and uninformed article. I’ve spent the last few years studying Russian (and Russia) and as a result I’ve become more aware of the culture there and how our media presents a lot of misinformation regarding Russia and Putin. Although I don’t personally agree with everything politicians in Russia do, I can say that our own politicians are at least as, if not more, unreasonable. So, to make a long story short, I don’t have much confidence in portrayals of Russia presented by our biased and agenda-driven media. Having said that, I don’t see Russia Today as any more biased or agenda-driven than CNN, CBS, FOX, or any of the other major media “news” sources here in the good ole USA. I would like to think that Techdirt in the future will be more conscientious in its coverage of issues related to Russia. Thank-you.

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