The ‘web brigades,’ also known in English media as the ‘troll army,’ are state-sponsored anonymous Internet political commentators and trolls linked to the Russian government.
Participants report that they are organized into teams and groups of commentators that participate in Russian and international political blogs and Internet forums using sockpuppets (fraudulent accounts) and large-scale orchestrated trolling (harassment) and disinformation campaigns to promote pro-Putin and pro-Russian propaganda. It has also been found that Wikipedia articles were targeted by Russian internet propaganda activities.
The earliest documented allegations of the existence of ‘web brigades’ appear to be in a 2003 article in ‘Vestnik Online’ (the website of a Russian periodical) called ‘The Virtual Eye of Big Brother’ by French journalist Anna Polyanskaya (a former assistant to assassinated Russian politician Galina Starovoitova) and two other authors, Andrey Krivov and Ivan Lomako. The authors claim that up to 1998, contributions to forums on Russian Internet sites (Runet) predominantly reflected liberal and democratic values, but after 2000, the vast majority of contributions reflected totalitarian values. This sudden change was attributed to the appearance of teams of pro-Russian commenters who appeared be organized by the Russian state security service. According to the authors a surge of ‘antidemocratic’ posts suddenly occurred at many Russian forums in 2000, but they caution that they could also be a reflection to the fact that access to Internet among the general Russian population soared during this time, which was until then accessible only to some sections of the society.
In 2012, a hacktivist group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous published a massive collection of emails allegedly belonging to former and present leaders of the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (including a number of government officials). Journalists who investigated the leaked information found that the pro-Kremlin movement had engaged in a range of activities including paying commentators to post content and hijacking blog ratings in the fall of 2011. The e-mails indicated that members of the ‘brigades’ were paid 85 rubles (about 3 US dollars) or more per comment, depending on whether the comment received replies. Some were paid as much as 600,000 roubles (about US $21,000) for leaving hundreds of comments on negative press articles on the internet, and were presented with iPads. A number of high-profile bloggers were also mentioned as being paid for promoting Nashi and government activities. The Federal Youth Agency, whose head (and the former leader of Nashi) Vasily Yakemenko was the highest-ranking individual targeted by the leaks, refused to comment on authenticity of the e-mails.
In 2013, a ‘Freedom House’ report stated that 22 of 60 countries examined have been using paid pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions, and that Russia has been at the forefront of this practice for several years, along with China and Bahrain. In the same year, Russian reporters investigated the St. Petersburg-based ‘Internet Research Agency,’ which employs at least 400 people. They found that the agency covertly hired young people as ‘Internet operators’ paid to write pro-Kremlin postings and comments, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture. Some Russian opposition journalists state that such practices create a chilling effect on the few independent media outlets that remain in the country.
Further investigations were performed by Novaya Gazeta and Institute of Modern Russia in 2014–15, inspired by the peak of activity of the pro-Russian brigades during the war in Donbass and assassination of Boris Nemtsov. The effort of using ‘troll armies’ to promote Putin’s policies is a multimillion-dollar operation. According to ‘The Guardian,’ the flood of pro-Russian comments is part of a coordinated ‘informational-psychological war operation.’ One Twitter bot network was documented to use more than 20,500 fake accounts to spam negative comments after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and events related to the war in Donbass.
Web brigades commentators sometimes leave hundreds of postings a day that criticize the country’s opposition and promote Kremlin-backed policymakers. Commentators simultaneously react to discussions of ‘taboo’ topics, including the historical role of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, political opposition, dissidents such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, murdered journalists, and cases of international conflict or rivalry (with countries such as Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, but also with the foreign policies of the United States and the European Union). Prominent journalist and Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev believes Russia’s efforts are aimed at confusing the audience, rather than convincing it. He states that they cannot censor information but can ‘trash it with conspiracy theories and rumors.’ To avert suspicions, the users sandwich political remarks between neutral articles on travelling, cooking and pets. They overwhelm comment sections of media to render meaningful dialogue impossible.
A collection of leaked documents, published by Moy Rayon, suggests that work at the ‘troll den’ is strictly regulated by a set of guidelines. Any blog post written by an agency employee, according to the leaked files, must contain ‘no fewer than 700 characters’ during day shifts and ‘no fewer than 1,000 characters’ on night shifts. Use of graphics and keywords in the post’s body and headline is also mandatory. In addition to general guidelines, bloggers are also provided with ‘technical tasks’ – keywords and talking points on specific issues, such as Ukraine, Russia’s internal opposition and relations with the West. On an average working day, the workers are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.
In 2015 Lawrence Alexander disclosed a network of propaganda websites sharing the same Google Analytics identifier and domain registration details, allegedly run by Nikita Podgorny from Internet Research Agency. The websites were mostly meme repositories focused on attacking Ukraine, Euromaidan, Russian opposition and Western policies. Other websites from this cluster promoted president Putin and Russian nationalism, and spread alleged news from Syria presenting anti-Western viewpoints. In August 2015 Russian researchers correlated Google search statistics of specific phrases with their geographic origin, observing increases in specific politically loaded phrases (such as ‘Poroshenko,’ ‘Maidan,’ ‘sanctions’) starting from 2013 and originating from very small, peripheral locations in Russia, such as Olgino, which also happens to be the headquarters of the Internet Research Agency company. The Internet Research Agency also appears to be the primary sponsor of an anti-Western exhibition ‘Material Evidence.’