Russian troll factory uses good-old Soviet-style subversion

nsnbc : The activities of the Kremlin’s troll factory up to the 2016 U.S. elections included stoking racial tensions, funding activist campaigns and organizing street flash mobs, reveled an investigative report published by the Russian RBC news service on Tuesday. The strategy used by the  St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency is largely identical with the good-old Soviet style strategy of subversion.

Stock from Shutterstock

Stock from Shutterstock

The Agency is believed to have launched a mass social media campaign using fake accounts to exacerbate racial and ideological divides in the U.S. before Donald Trump’s election in November 2016. RCB quotes an employee of the St. Petersburg-based troll factory as saying “There was no task to support Trump” but that employees were tasked to “uncover and highlight existing problems and social issues in the United States.” In other words, focus on social and political tensions in the USA and to exacerbate them.

The Kremlin’s troll factory’s strategy is largely identical with subversive strategy developed and used by the Soviet Union during the cold war. KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov described the four stages of ideological subversion as starting with demoralization, followed by destabilization, insurgency and stabilization. Demoralization and destabilization are here long-term processes that can be used concurrently. The use of social media, for example in Facebook groups managed by professional trolls and/or useful idiots are merely an adaptation to the contemporary technological, communication, information exchange and media environments.

Some 50 employees currently operate out of the St. Petersburg-based “American department” of the Internet Research Agency, but at the height of their operations in 2016 the department reportedly had between 80 to 90 employees. The campaign began in March 2015, when a night-shift vacancy for “internet operators” earning 40,000-50,000 rubles ($700-$870) monthly appeared on the job-search engine SuperJob, a former employee told RBC.

internetdogUseful idiots must be banging their heads into walls when they hear how much their professional troll buddies earn on making them do most of their job once the ball starts rolling. The description listed writing on “any given topic of a news, informational, or analytical nature” as the primary task. Applicants had to be fluent in English and possess creative writing abilities. Currently, the “American department” receives 60-70 million rubles ($1 million) funding annually, RBC reported.

The lowest-ranked employees earn 60,000 rubles ($1,046) a month, administrators up to 90,000 rubles (1,569 USD) a month, and managers 120,000 rubles ($2,100) a month, a former employee told RBC. Despite its marked success, the campaign faced numerous obstacles including having its accounts blocked by social media sites, a former troll factory employee told RBC. Immediately after Facebook would block a user, the factory’s IT department would purchase new proxy servers and issue new IP addresses so the work could begin anew. RBC counted over 6 million subscribers to 120 groups created by the troll factory that were blocked by social media companies.

In fairness, the subversive strategy doesn’t work in a complete vacuum. It requires already existing dissatisfaction, dissent or perceived injustice. The “beauty” of the strategy however, lies in the fact that it is based on actual grievances and therefore easily develops a dynamic on its own. Once started it a “campaign” merely requires careful management or adjustments to achieve the desired effect.  The right-wing group “Heart of Texas,” with its 254 members, the religious minority group “United Muslims of America” with 330 members, and the racial activist group “Blacktivist” were among many of the fake “troll factory” accounts RBC identified. The “factory” spent almost $80,000 over two years managing to stage about 40 political rallies by posing as American sponsors and hiring activists. The trolls were also responsible for organizing fake Facebook events such as a free-hotdog giveaway in Manhattan, that they would watch for amusement with street cameras, RBC reports.

CH/L – nsnbc 17.10.2017

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