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.
RFE/RL: Marat, you wrote on your blog that your time at Internet Research gave you enough material for an entire book. Why did you decide to write there? Entertainment? Adventurism?
Marat Burkhard: Yes, adventurism is the right word. Because in my opinion, this kind of work doesn’t exist anywhere else.
RFE/RL: Was it hard to get the job?
Burkhard: Yes, it was hard. You have to write sample texts first, and then they decide if you’re suitable for the work. They weed people out that way.
RFE/RL: What kind of texts?
Burkhard: First they make you write something neutral — Vegetarianism: Pros And Cons. After that, the assignments start to get more to the point — for example, what do I think about humanitarian convoys in Donetsk?
RFE/RL: Were you forced to hide your real beliefs?
Burkhard: Yes, I’m pro-Western. That’s natural for me and for them, of course, it’s not. I didn’t write anything about my views. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired me; they would have thrown me out immediately. They’re constantly running ideological checks on everything you write. I got caught a couple of times; I had some irresponsible moments.
RFE/RL: Did they immediately offer you a salary of 45,000 rubles, or did you get gradual raises before you reached that point?
Burkhard: No, I got it immediately — as long as I met my quota. It’s a real factory. There are production quotas, and for meeting your quota you get 45,000. The quota is 135 comments per 12-hour shift.
RFE/RL: How many departments are there at Internet Research?
Burkhard: It’s a modern building, four floors. There’s a LiveJournal department, a news department, a department where they create all sorts of images and demotivators (Editor’s Note: Demotivators are satirical graphics that tend to undermine their subject matter), a department where they make videos. But I was never in those departments. Each of them has its own office, tables, and computers, and no one prowls around from place to place. Everyone stays in their spot.
RFE/RL: How many people were in your department?
RFE/RL: Did you work 12 hours a day?
Burkhard: Yes. There were daytime and nighttime shifts.
RFE/RL: Did you need to sit in the office or was it possible to work from home?
Burkhard: There’s no working by remote. At night, a different shift comes in. I worked the day shift.
RFE/RL: So you sit in an office for 12 hours without ever going out? Why such gigantic shifts?
Burkhard: It’s two days on, two days off. So they figure that you need to work 12 hours at a time instead of eight.
RFE/RL: So what did your department do?
Burkhard: Our department commented on posts. Every city and village in Russia has its own municipal website with its own comments forum. People would write something on the forum — some kind of news — and our task was to comment on it. We did it by dividing into teams of three. One of us would be the “villain,” the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we’re doing. The other two enter into a debate with him — “No, you’re not right; everything here is totally correct.” One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument. You see? Villain, picture, link.
RFE/RL: So all three of you sit together, agreeing on who’s going to do what in this performance?
Burkhard: Yeah, that’s the kind of absurdity that goes on. We don’t talk too much, because everyone is busy. A single comment isn’t supposed to be less than 200 characters. You have to just sit there and type and type, endlessly. We don’t talk, because we can see for ourselves what the others are writing, but in fact you don’t even have to really read it, because it’s all nonsense. The news gets written, someone else comments on it, but I think real people don’t bother reading any of it at all.
So in this way, our little threesome traverses the country, stopping at every forum, starting with Kaliningrad and ending in Vladivostok. We create the illusion of actual activity on these forums. We write something, we answer each other. There are keywords, tags, that are needed for search engines. We’re given five keywords — for example, “Shoigu,” “defense minister,” “Russian army.” All three of us have to make sure these keywords appear all over the place in our comments. They can’t even be conjugated or declined. Sometimes it’s very hard to write when you can’t use any declensions!
A TYPICAL ASSIGNMENT
Topic: NATO troops are embedded with Ukrainian armed forces
Keywords: ukraine news, russia and ukraine, ukraine policy, ukraine, NATO, PMC (private military company)
Task: Raise this topic on 35 municipal forums
Work begins after an initial post, written by a troll in a different department, is published on the LiveJournal social-networking site under the username flcrbgrjn. The post argues that foreign mercenaries are fighting on the side of Ukrainian soldiers and links to a video that purports to show two American soldiers in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“The Kyiv junta regularly sics its media on Russia, and they lie shamelessly and recklessly. They argue Russian armed forces are fighting on the territory of Ukraine, but they refuse to provide any proof (because there isn’t any). But when it comes to the matter of Ukrainian armed forces, the American puppets entrenched in Kyiv say there’s no evidence that foreign mercenaries and Western intelligence agents are joining their ranks — they lie and don’t even blush!”
This post soon appears, according to an alphabetized list, on the Astrakhan city forum. Then the Villain Troll, working under the name Yana24, begins the troika’s work, posting a comment that takes issue with flcrbgrjn’s post:
“What NATO mercenaries are you talking about? So they filmed some kind of American there, so what? It’s still not clear what they were doing there. Russia as usual blames Ukraine for the things it’s doing itself. Everyone’s been talking about your own mercenaries for a long time, and you still haven’t pulled them out!”
The Link Troll then angrily responds to