Confessions of a Professional Russian Troll

 

RFE/RL–earning its keep these days–ran a fascinating interview with a professional pro-Kremlin Internet troll. Really worth reading in full:

More and more, posts and commentaries on the Internet in Russia and even abroad are generated by professional trolls, many of whom receive a higher-than-average salary for perpetuating a pro-Kremlin dialogue online. There are thousands of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and vKontakte, all increasingly focused on the war in Ukraine. Many emanate from Russia’s most famous “troll factory,” the Internet Research center, an unassuming building on St. Petersburg’s Savushkina Street, which runs on a 24-hour cycle. In recent weeks, former employees have come forward to talk to RFE/RL about life inside the factory, where hundreds of people work grinding, 12-hour shifts in exchange for 40,000 rubles ($700) a month or more. St. Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard spent two months working at Internet Research in the department tasked with clogging the forums on Russia’s municipal websites with pro-Kremlin comments. In the following interview, he describes a typical day and the type of assignments he encountered.

I have no idea how anyone could counter that kind of propaganda effort. Read the whole thing–do you have any good ideas?

On the Barnaul forum, the Link Troll kicks things off with praise and a link to a December 31 vesti.ru article, Putin Congratulates Obama And Reminds Him Of The Principles Of Mutual Respect.

“Great article! By the way, the president of Russia, also congratulated the American president, the German chancellor, and other Western politicians on New Year’s Eve. He’s to be commended for expressing his peaceful intentions and conducting normal policy — something that’s hard to get from Barack Obama.”

The Villain Troll appears incensed:

“And what did you find that was so totally amazing in his Christmas message??? I don’t understand!!! Vladimir Putin is an ordinary person!! So what if he’s the president?? If I get on TV and wish everyone a nice Christmas, will you write a nice article about me too??? Finally we’ve found something to talk about!”

The Picture Troll posts a photo of Putin at the church and retorts:

“This is idiotic! Putin is our president. And it’s really great that he went to a village church to congratulate everyone on the holiday. Christmas is a miracle. I envy the congregation. I would have loved to have been there on that great holiday.”

Obviously, writing about this on RTE/RL is one way to counter it, but it seems so pre-Internet, doesn’t it? They’re trolling in this synchronized, Bolshoi-ballet way, and they get paid to do it. I troll Sputnik news on Twitter sometimes for spontaneous patriotic fun, but I don’t have the time to do it all day long, and no one pays me a penny to do it.

Reading this demoralized me. I’m just one woman here. We need to figure out a better way to collective-troll them back.

There are 39 comments.

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  1. Capt. Aubrey Inactive
    Capt. Aubrey
    @CaptAubrey

    I wonder if the 40,000 rubles was 700 dollars last month or next month and I wonder if the cult of personality will last past another decimal point of ruble value destruction.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski: I have no idea how anyone could counter that kind of propaganda effort. Read the whole thing–do you have any good ideas?

    I’m sure it won’t be long before chat-bots are sufficiently sophisticated to automate this process.

    • #2
  3. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    Troll them back by posting YouTube clips of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

    • #3
  4. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Capt. Aubrey:I wonder if the 40,000 rubles was 700 dollars last month or next month and I wonder if the cult of personality will last past another decimal point of ruble value destruction.

    An interesting related paper here:

    How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression Sergei Guriev∗ Daniel Treisman† February 2015

    We develop an informational theory of dictatorship. Dictators survive not because of their use of force or ideology but because they convince the public—rightly or wrongly—that they are competent. Citizens do not observe the dictator’s type but infer it from signals inherent in their living standards, state propaganda, and messages sent by an informed elite via independent media. If citizens conclude the dictator is incompetent, they overthrow him in a revolution. The dictator can invest in making convincing state propaganda, censoring independent media, coopting the elite, or equipping police to repress attempted uprisings—but he must finance such spending with taxes that depress the public’s living standards. We show that incompetent dictators can survive as long as economic shocks are not too large. Moreover, their reputations for competence may grow over time. Censorship and co-optation of the elite are substitutes, but both are complements of propaganda. Repression of protests is a substitute for all the other techniques. In some equilibria the ruler uses propaganda and coopts the elite; in others, propaganda is combined with censorship. The multiplicity of equilibria emerges due to coordination failure among members of the elite. We show that repression is used against ordinary citizens only as a last resort when the opportunities to survive through co-optation, censorship, and propaganda are exhausted. In the equilibrium with censorship, difficult economic times prompt higher relative spending on censorship and propaganda. The results illuminate tradeoffs faced by various recent dictatorships.

    Too much ornamental mathematics, but the underlying idea is one that merits a lot of thought.

    • #4
  5. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    In Putin’s Russia, the internet trolls you.

    • #5
  6. viruscop Member
    viruscop
    @Viruscop

    Couldn’t the whole thing be solved by looking at IP addresses, matching the IP addresses with a geographic location, tracking comments over time, and then acting accordingly?

    • #6
  7. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Misthiocracy:

    Claire Berlinski: I have no idea how anyone could counter that kind of propaganda effort. Read the whole thing–do you have any good ideas?

    I’m sure it won’t be long before chat-bots are sufficiently sophisticated to automate this process.

    Well, yes, actually, probably the wrong time to admit it, but I’m a bot. Pretty good, eh? We’re beta-testing me. But basically, I’m an NSA project, and after we iron out a few bugs, I’ll be deployed.

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    viruscop:Couldn’t the whole thing be solved by looking at IP addresses, matching the IP addresses with a geographic location, tracking comments over time, and then acting accordingly?

    Acting how?

    • #8
  9. Capt. Aubrey Inactive
    Capt. Aubrey
    @CaptAubrey

    I very much doubt that a real bot in beta would find too much ornamental mathematics in anything.

    • #9
  10. viruscop Member
    viruscop
    @Viruscop

    Claire Berlinski:

    viruscop:Couldn’t the whole thing be solved by looking at IP addresses, matching the IP addresses with a geographic location, tracking comments over time, and then acting accordingly?

    Acting how?

    I’m not entirely sure, but at least the trolls would be spotted.

    • #10
  11. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    Flood their websites with pictures of LOLcats.

    hestoncat

    • #11
  12. viruscop Member
    viruscop
    @Viruscop

    Mike LaRoche:Flood their websites with pictures of LOLcats.

    That actually sounds somewhat enjoyable. I thought we are trying to punish these people.

    • #12
  13. viruscop Member
    viruscop
    @Viruscop

    viruscop:

    Claire Berlinski:

    viruscop:Couldn’t the whole thing be solved by looking at IP addresses, matching the IP addresses with a geographic location, tracking comments over time, and then acting accordingly?

    Acting how?

    I’m not entirely sure, but at least the trolls would be spotted.

    I suppose once the device they are using has been located using the IP address, then that device could be hacked to the point that the use of the device becomes an obvious risk to the personal information of the troll, thereby causing the troll to change devices. I suppose this would marginally increase costs for the Russian government, perhaps to the point that any benefit of trolling is negated by the costs of switching devices.

    • #13
  14. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Claire Berlinski:

    Misthiocracy:

    Claire Berlinski: I have no idea how anyone could counter that kind of propaganda effort. Read the whole thing–do you have any good ideas?

    I’m sure it won’t be long before chat-bots are sufficiently sophisticated to automate this process.

    Well, yes, actually, probably the wrong time to admit it, but I’m a bot. Pretty good, eh? We’re beta-testing me. But basically, I’m an NSA project, and after we iron out a few bugs, I’ll be deployed.

    Claire,

    Not that the thought of your deployment doesn’t intrigue me but I think we should consider using the ‘ultimate’ weapon against Putin. We can play hardball too.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #14
  15. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Capt. Aubrey:I very much doubt that a real bot in beta would find too much ornamental mathematics in anything.

    Thank you for choosing the Free World on Ricochet. All of our bots are busy right now, but your comment is important to us. Please hold on. Our next available representative will be with you shortly.

    • #15
  16. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Mike LaRoche:Flood their websites with pictures of LOLcats.

    11012891_1217861351576649_8043573818633178342_n

    • #16
  17. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    viruscop:

    Mike LaRoche:Flood their websites with pictures of LOLcats.

    That actually sounds somewhat enjoyable. I thought we are trying to punish these people.

    Indeed, many of the best cat videos on YouTube originate from Russia (or Japan).

    • #17
  18. viruscop Member
    viruscop
    @Viruscop

    Misthiocracy:

    viruscop:

    Mike LaRoche:Flood their websites with pictures of LOLcats.

    That actually sounds somewhat enjoyable. I thought we are trying to punish these people.

    Indeed, many of the best cat videos on YouTube originate from Russia (or Japan).

    I’m sure

    Who says that Japan is not endowed with significant natural resources?

    • #18
  19. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Misthiocracy:

    Indeed, many of the best cat videos on YouTube originate from Russia

    They do?

    You mean the Russians love their kittens, too?

    (Have we been infiltrated? “Putin is an ordinary person! The best cat videos are from Russia?”)

    • #19
  20. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Simply put the only thing we could do is to establish an equally motivated propaganda machine, but that just isn’t in the cards, and considering that censorship is always a possibility it might not be that practical anyway. After all it is a lot easier to cut people off from the internet than it would be from radio.

    Americans never have a grasp of how much effort, time, and practice dictatorships put into oppressing their people in subtle and indirect ways. Everyone thinks its all jack boots and billy clubs, but that is really a sign of failure. When they have the operation working smoothly there is no space for opposition. Dictators turn their nations into captives and many of them will begin to suffer from Stockholm syndrome.

    • #20
  21. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Valiuth:Americans never have a grasp of how much effort, time, and practice dictatorships put into oppressing their people in subtle and indirect ways. Everyone thinks its all jack boots and billy clubs, but that is really a sign of failure.

    Exactly–the article above paper to which I linked in comment 4 is not a prose masterpiece, but makes this point very clearly. The jackboots and billy clubs are indeed the old-fashioned way to do it.

    • #21
  22. Tommy De Seno Contributor
    Tommy De Seno
    @TommyDeSeno

    40,000 rubles for them while Ricochet serves the same function for Republicans for free.

    Who’s the good capitalist now?

    • #22
  23. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @RichardHarvester

    Claire Berlinski:

    Valiuth:Americans never have a grasp of how much effort, time, and practice dictatorships put into oppressing their people in subtle and indirect ways. Everyone thinks its all jack boots and billy clubs, but that is really a sign of failure.

    Exactly–the article above paper to which I linked in comment 4 is not a prose masterpiece, but makes this point very clearly. The jackboots and billy clubs are indeed the old-fashioned way to do it.

    I’m doing related write-ups on my wikiPENGUIN site. I have something called TPDList (Tin Pot Dictator list) which I’ve started off with a humorous invitation to Netanyahu, but which I will expand into dictator tech support (Maduro and Kirchner can call in for help) as well as the development of a manual for dictatorship. It ought to be a fun way to share how you work these things.

    • #23
  24. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    Putin is rather late to the game here, China has been all over this for quite some time now.

    In recent years China’s soft power efforts have both expanded in scope and become more sophisticated in delivery. One element is a state-funded band of internet trolls known as “the 50-Cent Party” (so called for reportedly earning 50 Chinese cents per post). They routinely storm comment sections under reports casting the Communist Party in an unfavourable light with inane or erroneous postings aimed at commandeering public debate.

    • #24
  25. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski:

    Misthiocracy:

    Indeed, many of the best cat videos on YouTube originate from Russia

    They do?

    You mean the Russians love their kittens, too?

    (Have we been infiltrated? “Putin is an ordinary person! The best cat videos are from Russia?”)

    Hey now, I wrote “many of the best”. MANY OF!!!

    ;-)

    • #25
  26. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski:

    Valiuth:Americans never have a grasp of how much effort, time, and practice dictatorships put into oppressing their people in subtle and indirect ways. Everyone thinks its all jack boots and billy clubs, but that is really a sign of failure.

    Exactly–the article above paper to which I linked in comment 4 is not a prose masterpiece, but makes this point very clearly. The jackboots and billy clubs are indeed the old-fashioned way to do it.

    < devil’s advocate mode = on >

    On the other hand, one could take the paper and use it as a checklist for many (most?) of the persuasion tactics used by politicians we support in democratic countries.

    Many of the tactics described in the paper are simply politics, meaning that the question “how do dictators stay in power?” has the same answer as “how do elected politicians stay in power?” By being competent politicians.

    I could easily see a progressive going through the paper and using it as “proof” that republican/conservative politicians are all dictators at heart, while a conservative could do the same for all progressive/socialist politicians.

    The difference between the dictator and the elected politician isn’t their choice of persuasion tactics. It’s the lack of a (free and legal) opposition, and also what they’re willing to do to stay in power once persuasion no longer works.

    < devil’s advocate mode = off >

    • #26
  27. Yeah...ok. Inactive
    Yeah...ok.
    @Yeahok

    Trolls supporting the government, we’ve got the same thing here. The English word is teacher.

    • #27
  28. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Misthiocracy:

    Claire Berlinski:

    Misthiocracy:

    Indeed, many of the best cat videos on YouTube originate from Russia

    They do?

    You mean the Russians love their kittens, too?

    (Have we been infiltrated? “Putin is an ordinary person! The best cat videos are from Russia?”)

    Hey now, I wrote “many of the best”. MANY OF!!!

    ;-)

    Oh, yeah!  He says he’s from Canada, but he never posts on hockey, or Tim Hortons, or… or… (somebody help me out here – I’ve run off the edge of Canadian culture).

    You thought you were so clever Misth, but we are on to you now tovarisch!

    • #28
  29. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Claire Berlinski:

    Valiuth:Americans never have a grasp of how much effort, time, and practice dictatorships put into oppressing their people in subtle and indirect ways. Everyone thinks its all jack boots and billy clubs, but that is really a sign of failure.

    Exactly–the article above paper to which I linked in comment 4 is not a prose masterpiece, but makes this point very clearly. The jackboots and billy clubs are indeed the old-fashioned way to do it.

    Even the old fashioned way was never that. Their secret is a lack of all shame that allows them to without any sense of guilt or restraint lie about any and all things.

    • #29
  30. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Tommy De Seno:40,000 rubles for them while Ricochet serves the same function for Republicans for free.

    Who’s the good capitalist now?

    Well I think Ricochet is far more self contained we haven’t gone out to filibuster on some government message board. Maybe we should. Maybe that is what we can do. We can create a universal Ricochet Avatar, that our members can use to litter the internet with our opinion presenting a unified and relentless front against our opponents.

    • #30

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