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.
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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 the Villain, rejecting Yana24’s argument and linking to a second report on the alleged presence of American soldiers in Mariupol:
“Did you read the text at all? If you’re up to date with the topic, you should know how much evidence has already been provided that shows the war in Ukraine is continuing because the West and Poroshenko are reluctant to pursue peace. They’ve found things belonging to Western soldiers, and now they’ve found the soldiers themselves. Have they found proof that Russian troops are in Ukraine? Or troops themselves? No!”
Next in line is the Picture Troll, who accuses the West of hypocrisy and adds a demotivator for extra emphasis:
“The West is so two-faced: in every discussion about the Ukrainian conflict the West blames Russia even as it’s providing the Ukrainian armed forces with PMC soldiers representing NATO. It’s a policy of double standards!”
After Astrakhan comes Biysk. And from there, Bryansk, Veliky Novgorod, Vladivostok,Volgograd, two forums in Voronezh, several Russian-wide forums — for exampleChupakabra — and, at the end of the Russian alphabet, Chita and Cherepovets.
There are few other comments, but the theme flies to the top of Yandex.
RFE/RL: Marat, can you recall the strangest or funniest task that your team was given?
Burkhard: The funniest was when U.S. President Barack Obama chewed gum in India and then spit it out. “You need to write 135 comments about this, and don’t be shy about how you express yourself. Write whatever you want, just stick the word Obama in there a lot and then cover it over with profanities.” In the assignment, there’s always a conclusion you’ve got to make, it’s already written, that Obama is a black monkey who doesn’t know anything about culture. You stick him in ancient India and he chews gum there. It’s funny in the sense that they’re ready to grab onto any little thing. On the other hand, it’s not funny. It’s absurd and it crosses a line.
RFE/RL: The main task of the factory is to write on visitor forums, in particular forums run by Russia’s ideological enemies. Who does that?
Burkhard: There’s a Ukrainian department, an English department. They bombard the websites of CNN and the BBC. They have their own type of targets — The New York Times, not the Samara city site. It’s a little simpler for us, of course.
RFE/RL: You know foreign languages. Didn’t they offer you a position in one of the foreign departments?
Burkhard: They did. I had a job interview in the English department, but they started to ask me about my beliefs, to which I replied that I was apolitical, I don’t know anything, I don’t follow anything. Apparently, that ended my prospects there. To get a job with them, I should have answered that I follow certain trains of thought. The salary for employees with foreign language skills is more than 45,000 — it’s 65,000 and higher.
RFE/RL: And are some of the people working on social networks — on Facebook, in particular?
Burkhard: Yes, there are special people working on Facebook. There are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments. They write and write all day, and it’s no laughing matter — you can get fired for laughing. And so every day, any news does the trick — it could be Obama, could be [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, could be Greece, North Korea.
The young people doing this work are barely capable of formulating what’s important about these stories. Even a political scientist can’t be an expert about the entire world, but here people are expected to write about everything. And how you write doesn’t matter; you can praise or scold. You just have put those keywords in.
Then, in order to plump up the political content, they send in a guy to talk about the topic of the day, so that at least the employees have a little background on the topic. But the guy himself has an extremely low level of understanding, so it all looks completely absurd. Incidentally, they gave us a test on ideology, with 15 or 20 questions you need to answer. Anyone who makes a couple of mistakes has to retake it. But anyone who’s simply hopeless just gets fired.
RFE/RL: What do they ask on the exam?
Burkhard: For example: “What does Russia want to happen in the Donetsk People’s Republic?” It’s very difficult to answer, and you have just two or three words. Or, for example, easier questions like “Who’s Psaki?” (Editor’s Note: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki is a frequent target of Russian trolls.)
RFE/RL: The topic of Ukraine probably dominates.
Burkhard: Yes, they throw everything they’ve got at Ukraine.
RFE/RL: How does your troika work when the assignment is to praise Russia instead of criticizing Ukraine or America?
Burkhard: I once had occasion to write that the majority of Germans support Putin’s policies. That’s how the assignment was worded — “Say that the majority of Germans support Putin’s policies and are unhappy with Merkel’s.” Where they get this from I don’t know, but I have to write about it. It’s funny to write, “The majority of Germans…”
RFE/RL: Does the Villain have a role in such assignments?
Burkhard: If something is pro-Putin, the Villain will have doubts. For example, for Orthodox Christmas, Putin went to Mass at an ordinary village church outside Voronezh and there was sweetness and light all around. A story gets posted along the lines of, “How wonderful, how marvelous, how great, what an amazing man he is.” But the Villain disagrees: “OK, come on, Putin went to Voronezh to boost his popularity with the public.” To which we answer, “What’s the matter with you, what popularity are you talking about? Yes, he’s popular, but he doesn’t need popularity, he just wants to meet with ordinary people.” That’s a funny example.
Topic: Build a positive attitude toward the domestic policies of Vladimir Putin; the president personally celebrated Christmas with ordinary Russians.
Keywords: president rf, putin news, putin policies, christmas, vladimir putin
Again, the assignment begins with a post published on a LiveJournal account. The post about Putin is prefaced by a fragment from a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, “It’s a sin to soar over a golden-domed chapel and not to pray in it,” which in this context seems to take on a double meaning.
The blessed holiday of the Nativity is upon us. And on such a miraculous day, which unites all citizens of Russia — no matter whether you’re a believer or, as they say, “unchurched” — on the way to the Lord, the Russian president VP was, as always, with the people! Where else but in the provinces, far away from the urban hustle and bustle, is it possible to really experience this holy day? So this year Vladimir Putin visited the village church in honor of the Holy Virgin, located near Voronezh in the village of Otradnoye. And on such a holiday, one of the main holidays in Russia (and in the entire Christian church), at such a difficult time the president was with the people and congratulated all the clerics and faithful parishioners!
“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.”
Elsewhere, on the Yekaterinburg forum, the Villain Troll attacks Putin’s Christmas appearance as a stunt aimed at distracting the public from the country’s massive economic woes:
“Give your neighbor a sack of buckwheat this year!! Now that’s a good deed!!! Vladimir Putin represents everything that awaits us in the future!! He just went to pray for his ass and ask for forgiveness. He’s driven the country straight to hell, and now what can he do??? Pray, and that’s it!”
The Picture Troll issues a stern reprimand, illustrated with a bucolic photo from the scene:
“Good lord, your language! Christmas is a blessed holiday, and here you are swearing. It’s not worth it. There’s enough buckwheat for everyone, our country will survive the anti-Russian sanctions, no problem. So I congratulate everyone on a blessed holiday and wish everyone peace and goodness. Especially YOU!”
And thus the troika spends the day sweeping through 35 forums.
RFE/RL: Were people ever fired for ideological mistakes?
Burkhard: Yes, they were. One person got fired right in front of me. I also got in some trouble. There are so many cartoons out there that once I made a mistake and put up a caricature of Yanukovych instead of one of Poroshenko. And you can’t make fun of Yanukovych; Yanukovych is one of the good guys. They immediately called me on the carpet: “How dare you? You really didn’t know that it was Yanukovych?” All this goes on with terribly serious faces. There are tons of managers there who constantly monitor and follow everyone.
RFE/RL: And who are the managers?
Burkhard: People from Internet Research who’ve been there a long time and apparently worked their way up. Their salary, by the way, is two times higher. I happened to see a salary list, and I was just horrified — 70,000-80,000 rubles for reading the crap I write and wagging their finger at me if I make a mistake.
RFE/RL: So who goes in for this work? Are there people there who honestly want to fight Obama or Merkel over the Donetsk People’s Republic?
Burkhard: Yes, there really are people like that. That’s the worst thing: When there’s a lunch break, there’s a kind of cafeteria, with vending machines and coffee, and you hear people — who write all day about these things — instead of drinking coffee and talking about something else, they start to furiously foam at the mouth about the very same things. Still something to prove. So there are fanatics.
But the basic majority are just young people who want to make money. They’re so politically illiterate that Putin, Obama… They don’t know the difference. Of course, they’re all for Putin, but they’re absolutely politically illiterate. “Whatever we’re told, that’s what we’ll write about, no questions asked, and we don’t want to know.”
RFE/RL: Have you met people in other departments?
Burkhard: The different departments don’t particularly socialize. Friendship isn’t encouraged. The system is very repressive. If you’re late by a minute, there’s already a 500 ruble fine. The employees are under constant pressure. There’s a fine for even the smallest deviation. You’re constantly under threat of being fired, constantly being ordered around. It’s not a very civilized atmosphere.
RFE/RL: Did you get fired or did you decide on your own to leave?
Burkhard: I decided myself, because I can’t engage in absurd work. In terms of life experience, I got it, and to keep going didn’t make any sense — it’s all absurd. I don’t share this ideology, I’m absolutely against it, I was located in the enemy camp. Two months was enough to understand how everything there is done. To keep on working made no sense, even for money, because it’s such hard work that — just forget it, forget the money. Just don’t make me go there any more.
By the way, any time a journalist shows up and tries to get in or ask something, they go on high alert. All the curtains are kept closed. We’re all forbidden from going out on the street during the day. They’re really afraid of journalists.
RFE/RL: But there are still a lot of leaks. Three people gave us interviews last week. It’s like a parody of an Orwell novel.
Burkhard: Yes, that’s right, the Ministry of Truth. You work in the Ministry of Truth, which is the Ministry of Lies, and everyone kind of believes in this truth. Yes, you’re right, it’s Orwell.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.