Have you ever wondered about the secret lives of trolls? Who they really are, and where they come from? Whether they're all just hordes of mouthbreathing antisocial teenagers hanging out in their parents' basements? For the New York Times, Adrian Chen has reported on one particularly unusual group of trolls, the St. Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency,” which employs mostly Russian young adults to spread pro-Kremlin sentiments, and pays them handsomely.
Here's a brief recap if you don't want to read the entire, very long text: Last year in the US, a series of hoaxes spreading misinformation via social networking platforms about disasters such as explosions, terrorist attacks, clandestine ebola outbreaks. Dozens of Twitter accounts, Youtube videos, Wikipedia articles, cloned or fake webpages of news media, actual texts to residents were used to create the impression online that these events actually took place. Chen connects these efforts to the Internet Research Agency, which potentially employs up to 400 people producing or “astroturfing” pro-Kremlin propaganda online. These trolling operations are funded by "Evgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch restaurateur called 'the Kremlin’s chef' in the independent press for his lucrative government contracts and his close relationship with Putin," and represent one of the Kremlin's several measures to control the internet as a reaction to the 2011 protests against the fraudulent election, which were organized and gained momentum online.
While the Internet Research Agency's activities were originally conducted in Russian, they have recently expanded to the English speaking Internet, where Putin is much less popular. Chen begins to track the activities of Russian trolls poorly posing as everyday Americans. These Americans have long-running social media profiles and even create IRL events, such as the event "Material Evidence" at the gallery Artbeam in Cheslea, which I had not even heard of heretofore. When Chen visits St. Petersburg, he interviews a bevy of former Internet Research Agency employees, including one young female employee who brought her neo-nazi brother as protection to the interview with Chen. Russian authorities had apparently caught on to his research and attempted to frame him meeting up with a notorious Russian neo-nazi to create anti-Russian propaganda.
The entire story is so outlandish it's nearly unbelievable. One has to wonder whether this is the singular agenda of one quirky, dark Russian oligarch or if the Internet Research Agency has some some sort of greater, state-funded infrastructure.
Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space. In the midst of such a war, the Runet (as the Russian Internet is often called) can be an unpleasant place for anyone caught in the crossfire. Soon after I met Leonid Volkov, he wrote a post on his Facebook wall about our interview, saying that he had spoken with someone from The New York Times. A former pro-Kremlin blogger later warned me about this. Kremlin allies, he explained, monitored Volkov’s page, and now they would be on guard. “That was not smart,” he said.
The chain that links the Columbian Chemicals hoax to the Internet Research Agency begins with an act of digital subterfuge perpetrated by its online enemies. Last summer, a group called Anonymous International — believed to be unaffiliated with the well-known hacktivist group Anonymous — published a cache of hundreds of emails said to have been stolen from employees at the agency. It was just one hack in a long series that Anonymous International had carried out against the Kremlin in recent months. The group leaked embarrassing photos of Putin allies and incriminating emails among officials. It claimed to have hacked into Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s phone, and reportedly hacked his Twitter account, tweeting: “I’m resigning. I am ashamed of this government’s actions. Forgive me.”
The emails indicated that the Internet Research Agency had begun to troll in English. One document outlined a project called “World Translation”; the problem, it explained, was that the foreign Internet was biased four to one against Russia, and the project aimed to change the ratio. Another email contained a spreadsheet that listed some of the troll accounts the agency was using on the English-language web. After BuzzFeed reported on the leak, I used the spreadsheet to start mapping the network of accounts on Facebook and Twitter, trying to draw connections.
One account was called “I Am Ass.” Ass had a Twitter account, an Instagram account, multiple Facebook accounts and his own website. In his avatars, Ass was depicted as a pair of cartoon buttocks with an ugly, smirking face. He filled his social-media presences with links to news articles, along with his own commentary. Ass had a puerile sense of humor and only a rudimentary grasp of the English language. He also really hated Barack Obama. Ass denounced Obama in posts strewn with all-caps rants and scatological puns. One characteristic post linked to a news article about an ISIS massacre in Iraq, which Ass shared on Facebook with the comment: “I’m scared and farting! ISIS is a monster awakened by Obama when he unleashed this disastrous Iraq war!”
Despite his unpleasant disposition, Ass had a half-dozen or so fans who regularly liked and commented on his posts. These fans shared some unusual characteristics. Their Facebook accounts had all been created in the summer of 2014. They all appeared to be well-dressed young men and women who lived in large American cities, yet they seemed to have no real-life friends. Instead, they spent their free time leaving anti-Obama comments on the Facebook posts of American media outlets like CNN, Politico and Fox News. Their main Facebook interactions, especially those of the women, appeared to be with strangers who commented on their physical appearance. The women were all very attractive — so attractive, indeed, that a search revealed that some of their profile photos had been stolen from models and actors. It became clear that the vast majority of Ass’s fans were not real people. They were also trolls.
I friended as many of the trolls on Facebook as I could and began to observe their ways. Most of the content they shared was drawn from a network of other pages that, like Ass’s, were clearly meant to produce entertaining and shareable social-media content. There was the patriotic Spread Your Wings, which described itself as “a community for everyone whose heart is with America.” Spread Your Wings posted photos of American flags and memes about how great it was to be an American, but the patriotism rang hollow once you tried to parse the frequent criticisms of Obama, an incoherent mishmash of liberal and conservative attacks that no actual American would espouse. There was also Art Gone Conscious, which posted bad art and then tenuously connected it to Obama’s policy failures, and the self-explanatory Celebrities Against Obama. The posts churned out every day by this network of pages were commented on and shared by the same group of trolls, a virtual Potemkin village of disaffected Americans.
After following the accounts for a few weeks, I saw a strange notification on Facebook. One account, which claimed to be a woman from Seattle named Polly Turner, RSVPed to a real-life event. It was a talk in New York City to commemorate the opening of an art exhibit called Material Evidence. I was vaguely aware of Material Evidence, thanks to eye-catching advertisements that had appeared in subway stations and on the sides of buses throughout New York City: a black-and-white photo of masked men in camouflage, overlaid with the slogan “Syria, Ukraine … Who’s Next?” Material Evidence’s website described it as a traveling exhibition that would reveal “the full truth” about the civil war in Syria, as well as about 2014’s Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, through a combination of “unique footage, artefacts, video.” I clicked on the Material Evidence talk and saw that a number of other trolls had been invited, including my old friend I Am Ass.
Walking into Material Evidence, mounted last September in the cavernous ArtBeam gallery in Chelsea, was like walking into a real-life version of the hall of mirrors I’d stumbled into on Facebook. A sign at the front declared that the show did not “support a specific political goal,” but the message became clear as soon as I began to browse the images. Large, well-composed photos testified to the barbarity of the Syrian rebels, bent on slaughtering handsome Syrian soldiers and innocent civilians alike. A grim panorama showed a gymnasium supposedly used by rebels to torture prisoners. There was a heroic, sunlit portrait of a Syrian Army officer. A room hidden behind a curtain displayed gory photos of rebel-caused civilian causalities, “provided by the Syrian ministry of defense.”
Then there were the pictures from the Ukrainian revolution, which focused almost exclusively on the Right Sector, a small group of violent, right-wing, anti-Russian protesters with a fondness for black balaclavas. Russian authorities have seized upon Right Sector to paint the entire revolution, backed by a huge swath of Ukrainian society, as orchestrated by neo-fascist thugs. The show’s decision to juxtapose the rebellions in Syria and Ukraine was never clearly explained, perhaps because the only connection possible was that both targeted leaders supported by Russia.
On the floor in front of many of the photos sat the actual items that appeared in them, displayed under glass cases. How, exactly, did organizers procure the very same battered motorcycle helmet that a Ukrainian protester wore in a photo while brawling with riot police? Who had fronted the money to purchase a mangled white van, supposedly used by Syrian rebels in a botched suicide bombing, and transport it to New York City? Few answers were forthcoming from Benjamin Hiller, the Berlin-based German-American photojournalist who was put forth as the curator of Material Evidence. He sat at a table in the front of the gallery, a heavyset bearded man dressed entirely in black. He told me that the show had been organized by an independent collective of European, Russian and Syrian war photographers who were fed up with the one-sided view of conflicts presented by Western media. He said they simply wanted to show the “other side.” Hiller claimed that the funds to rent the space, take out the ads, transport the material and create a $40,000 grant advertised on the Material Evidence website had been raised through “crowdfunding.” (Hiller has since left the organization and says that because of the show’s “misinformations” and “nonjournalistic approach,” he “does not want to be affiliated anymore with the project.”)
When I got home, I searched Twitter for signs of a campaign. Sure enough, dozens of accounts had been spamming rave reviews under the hashtag #MaterialEvidence. I clicked on one, a young woman in aviator sunglasses calling herself Zoe Foreman. (I later discovered her avatar had been stolen.) Most of her tweets were unremarkable song lyrics and inspirational quotes. But on Sept. 11 of last year, she spent hours spamming politicians and journalists about a horrific chemical plant explosion in St. Mary Parish, La. The source field on Twitter showed that the tweets Zoe Foreman — and the majority of other trolls — sent about #ColumbianChemicals were posted using a tool called Masss Post, which is associated with a nonworking page on the domain Add1.ru. According to online records, Add1.ru was originally registered in January 2009 by Mikhail Burchik, whose email address remained connected to the domain until 2012. Documents leaked by Anonymous International listed a Mikhail Burchik as the executive director of the Internet Research Agency.
In early February, I called Burchik, a young tech entrepreneur in St. Petersburg, to ask him about the hoax and its connection to the Internet Research Agency. In an article for the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German journalist Julian Hans had claimed that Burchik confirmed the authenticity of the leaked documents. But when I called Burchik, he denied working at the Internet Research Agency. “I have heard of it, but I don’t work in this organization,” he said. Burchik said he had never heard of the Masss Post app; he had no specific memory of the Add1.ru domain, he said, but he noted that he had bought and sold many domains and didn’t remember them all. Burchik suggested that perhaps a different Mikhail Burchik was the agency’s executive director. But the email address used by the Mikhail Burchik in the leak matched the address listed at that time on the website of the Mikhail Burchik I spoke with.
In St. Petersburg, I finally had a chance to compare notes with Andrei Soshnikov, the young investigative journalist at Moi Raion to whom Ludmila Savchuk leaked her documents. Soshnikov is an indefatigable reporter: During one investigation, he had gone so far as to create a 3-D computer model of a roadway in order to calculate how much asphalt had been stolen during its construction. He was one of the first journalists to expose the Internet Research Agency when he went undercover and got a job there in 2013. Since then, he had followed the agency’s Russian trolls as obsessively as I had been tracking their English counterparts.
I showed Soshnikov a YouTube video posted on Facebook by one of the trolls. The video was a slick animated infographic about the faults of the United States Secret Service. What had caught my attention was the narrator. He sounded just like the voice from the videos spread during the Columbian Chemicals and Atlanta shooting hoaxes: a man trying desperately to sound American but coming off as Australian instead.
Soshnikov instantly recognized the style of the animation. It was made, he said, by an outfit called Infosurfing, which posts pro-Kremlin infographics on Instagram and VKontakte. Soshnikov showed me how he used a service called Yomapic, which maps the locations of social-media users, to determine that photos posted to Infosurfing’s Instagram account came from 55 Savushkina. He had been monitoring all of the content posted from 55 Savushkina for weeks and had assembled a huge database of troll content.
He brought up Infosurfing’s YouTube channel, and as we scrolled down, I noticed several videos in the same style as the Secret Service animation. In fact, Infosurfing had posted the exact same video on its own account — except instead of the unfortunate Australian voice-over, it was narrated in Russian. It was the most tantalizing connection yet: It seemed as if the man in the hoax videos had worked for an outfit connected to the same building that housed the Internet Research Agency.
Still, no one had heard of any department that might have orchestrated the hoax. The English-language trolling team was an elite and secretive group. Marat Burkhardt, who worked in the forums department, was asked to try out for an English-language team but didn’t get the job. The only person I spoke with who worked in the English department was a woman named Katarina Aistova. A former hotel receptionist, she told me she joined the Internet Research Agency when it was in a previous, smaller office. I found her through the Anonymous International leak, which included emails she had sent to her bosses, reporting on the pro-Putin comments she left on sites like The Blaze and Politico. One of her assignments had been to write an essay from the point of view of an average American woman. “I live in such developed society, so that people have practically ceased to walk on foot,” she wrote. When I emailed Aistova, she wasn’t eager to talk. She told me she had been harassed by critics of the Internet Research Agency after her email appeared in the leak; some men had even come to her door. She would meet me for an interview, but only if she could bring her brother for protection. I agreed, and we met at an out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant.
Aistova and her brother made an unusual pair. She was a short young woman with midlength brown hair, dressed all in black: sweater, leggings, big wedge boots. She insisted on paying for my coffee. “You are a Russian guest,” she said. He, by contrast, was a hulking skinhead with arms full of Nazi-themed tattoos, most prominent among them a five-inch swastika on his left biceps. “My brother, he looks like a strongman,” Aistova said, giggling. He wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the skull-and-crossbones insignia of the SS Totenkopf division, which administered the Nazi concentration camps. I asked him what his T-shirt meant. “Totenkopf,” he grunted. During the interview he sat across the table from Aistova and me, smiling silently behind his sunglasses.
Aistova said that she worked for the Internet Research Agency for a month and a half. The majority of her work was translating news articles from English to Russian. The news articles covered everything from Ukraine to traffic accidents. On a few occasions, her bosses asked her to leave comments on American news sites about Russia, but she said that they never told her what to say. She loves Russia, she told me. She truly believes that Putin is just trying to help the people of Eastern Ukraine, and that his actions are being unfairly spun by the Western media. “I was like, Hey, you guys, you are saying these bad things about Putin, but people are suffering.”
But she claimed to harbor no ill will toward the United States. She wants to visit New York City, she said, and see the locations from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” one of her favorite films. “I don’t feel aggressive toward America. We’re the same people, we just speak different languages,” she said. After the interview, we shook hands outside the restaurant. “You seem like a journalist who will tell the truth,” she said. “I wish you luck on your story.”
On my last morning in St. Petersburg, I returned to 55 Savushkina. The clouds had lifted after a miserable week of snow and howling wind. At a few minutes before 10, my translator and I positioned ourselves on the sidewalk in front of the entrance, hoping to catch some of the trolls as they began the day shift. This was not a very well thought out strategy. Any employees arriving so close to the start of their shift didn’t have time to talk to a journalist even if they wanted to. A large van lurched to a halt in front of us and deposited a half-dozen young people, who hurried in the door before we had the chance to approach them. A bus stopped halfway down the block, and another gaggle of workers emerged. They waved off my translator’s inquiries with annoyed grunts or stone-faced silence. A young man smoking a cigarette said he didn’t work inside the building. He finished his cigarette and promptly went inside the building.
At 10 a.m. sharp, the flow of workers stopped. I decided we might as well try walking inside. I had read of other journalists who tried to enter the building, only to be kicked out immediately, so I entered with some trepidation. Two men in suits guarded the turnstiles. My translator and I approached a receptionist behind a desk and asked if we could speak with someone from Internet Research. (It dropped the “Agency” on moving to 55 Savushkina.) She informed us that Internet Research was no longer a tenant. “A couple of months ago, we had to say goodbye, because it was giving the entire building a bad reputation,” she said, matter-of-factly.
She pointed to a board that displayed a makeshift directory of the building’s current occupants. The names were printed out on small scraps of paper, and none of them were Internet Research. But I did recognize one: “FAN,” or Federal News Agency. I had read some news articles claiming that FAN was part of a network of pro-Kremlin news sites run out of 55 Savushkina, also funded by Evgeny Prigozhin. Former Internet Research Agency employees I had spoken to said they believed FAN was another wing of the same operation, under a different name. I asked to speak to someone from FAN. To my surprise, the receptionist picked up the phone, spoke into it for a few seconds and then informed us that Evgeny Zubarev, the editor in chief of FAN, would be right out to meet us.
Zubarev, who looked to be in his 50s, had close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a weary face. He greeted me with a handshake and invited me into his office. We made our way through the turnstiles and signed in with the guards, then took a brief walk down a long hallway to FAN’s two-room office on the first floor. It was unusually quiet for an online news operation that, according to Zubarev, had a staff of 40 people. The newsroom was equipped for a sizable team, with about a dozen identical black desktop computers sitting on identical brown laminate desks, but only two young reporters sat at them. The shades were drawn and the furniture looked just barely unpacked.
As we sat at Zubarev’s desk, I told him about the articles I’d read accusing FAN of being a Kremlin propaganda outfit. He shook his head in indignation. He turned to his computer and brought up FAN’s website, pointing to the masthead and the certificate number that showed FAN was an officially registered Russian mass-media organization. “FAN is a news agency,” he declared. It had stringers and reporters in Ukraine, and in many former Soviet states; they did original reporting, sometimes at great personal risk. Zubarev himself was a veteran journalist who covered the annexation of Crimea for the Russian news agency Rosbalt before joining FAN. But ever since reports linked him to the Internet Research Agency, he had faced questions about his integrity.
“We understand being in this building may discredit us, but we can’t afford to move at the moment,” Zubarev said with a sigh. “So we have to face the situation where reporters like you, Mr. Chen, come in here and ask us questions every day.”
Zubarev said he believed that he and FAN were victims of a smear campaign. I asked him who would do such a thing.
“Listen, that’s my position, not a confirmed fact,” he said. “It’s possible that there are some business interests, I don’t know. Maybe it’s an attack on our investors.” But when I asked who those investors were, he declined to comment. “I can’t discuss the identities of investors,” he said. “That’s in my contract.”
I left St. Petersburg on April 28. One day later, FAN published an article with the headline “What Does a New York Times Journalist Have in Common With a Nazi From St. Petersburg?” The story detailed a mysterious meeting in St. Petersburg between a New York Times journalist — me — and a neo-Nazi. Its lead image was a photo of a skinhead giving an enthusiastic Nazi salute. But it was not just any skinhead. It was the skinhead whom Katarina Aistova brought to our meeting and introduced to me as her brother. As I learned from reading the article, Aistova’s “brother” was in fact a notorious neo-Nazi named Alexei Maximov.
The article explained that Maximov, who goes by the nickname Fly, is a member of Totenkopf, a prominent skinhead group in St. Petersburg. He reportedly served nine years in prison for stabbing a man to death. Just a month before I met him, Maximov again made headlines when, during an investigation into beatings of immigrants around St. Petersburg, the police found weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia in his apartment.
The story made no mention of Katarina Aistova or the Internet Research Agency. Instead, the article claimed I met with Maximov because I wanted his help in creating a provocation against Russia. Maximov told FAN that I requested to meet him because I was “very keenly interested in sentiment among Russian nationalists.” He continued: “He evidently needed stories about how the murderous Kremlin regime persecutes free Russian people. It’s not the first time I’ve come across such requests on the part of Western journalists, but I’m not going to help them with this. Many want to see in Russian nationalists a ‘fifth column,’ which will function on orders from the West and sweep away the Kremlin.” Apparently I was trying to foment a mini-Euromaidan, right there in St. Petersburg.
The article was illustrated with photos of my meeting with Aistova and Maximov. One photo appears to have been shot surreptitiously through the restaurant window while we sat and talked. The point of view is such that Aistova is barely visible; indeed, at first glance, I seem to be having a friendly chat with a skinhead over a cup of coffee. Another photo, this one taken outside the restaurant, somehow makes me look deep in conversation with Maximov, even though I distinctly recall that Aistova was standing between us.
I had to admire the brazenness of the scheme. I remembered how, at the restaurant, Aistova had sat next to me so I had to twist around to talk to her, while Maximov sat silently across from us. Apparently they had arranged themselves so it could appear, from the right perspective, that I was meeting Maximov alone. I emailed Aistova to ask her to explain what happened. She responded only: “I would also like you to explain yourself and the situation!!” (A few weeks later, when I tried calling her by phone, she pretended I had the wrong number.)