The Russian Troll Factory
June 2, 2015 7:55 AM   Subscribe

The Agency is every online community member's worst fears come to life: a real honest-to-goodness troll/noise factory where dozens of employees using hundreds of accounts post thousands of highly targeted and coordinated attacks as awful comments on Twitter, Facebook, and forums in order to sway public opinion about geopolitics. From a nondescript office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, an army of well-paid “trolls” has tried to wreak havoc all around the Internet — and in real-life American communities...
posted by mathowie (77 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 8:08 AM on June 2, 2015


If you look on the Guardian, most stories on the front page get about 100-300 comments, but those involving Russia often go over 1,000 comments in a short time. It's been obvious for a long time what's happening.
posted by kersplunk at 8:12 AM on June 2, 2015 [18 favorites]


Holy shit that story took a turn.
posted by griphus at 8:17 AM on June 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


Well, if anything is going to sway my opinions on geopolitics, it's angry, insulting strangers on the internet.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:19 AM on June 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


Also this is wonderful just because one of my favorite aspects of Russian culture is completely accepted presence of occult mysticism in popular discourse.:
One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.
posted by griphus at 8:21 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hmm. Wonder if this post is Matt's way of making sure the site stays funded. You know, a few thousand concern trolls, $5 a pop, wait a couple of weeks...
posted by eriko at 8:23 AM on June 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


It's not about swaying opinions, Card Cheat—it's about removing the ability to sway opinions by polluting discourse so thoroughly. If the general environment is bad enough (think Youtube comments), anything of value is drowned out. Gradually, discussion degrades as people who could be valuable participants are scared off by the status quo. This is next to inevitable because the damaged people who love to troll for fun simply have more energy than reasonable people—they will spend hours trolling their local news site to explain how it's all Obama's fault, and back when segregation was legal things were a lot better. It's just that Putin has realized he can harness that sort of pollution as a way to ruin the main form of communication for his opposition.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:26 AM on June 2, 2015 [40 favorites]




This article weak like puny president Obama.
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:27 AM on June 2, 2015 [55 favorites]


Why have you been taken in by this? Obama's obviously using his network of shills at the NYT to discredit legitimate Russian media organizations. He cannot afford to have the truth about Crimea come out.

Wake up, sheeple!
posted by Hizonner at 8:29 AM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


So is MetaFilter infested with Russian trolls, or do we come up with pro-Russian and anti-American commentary just by nature? [/tongue-in-cheek]
posted by alasdair at 8:30 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


> It's not about swaying opinions, Card Cheat—it's about removing the ability to sway opinions by polluting discourse so thoroughly.

Yeah, that makes sense. I don't think I've commented anywhere other than Metafilter in years, because...well, you know.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:30 AM on June 2, 2015 [8 favorites]




Holy shit that story took a turn.

Geez, I knew the Russians were always better at tradecraft than the Americans, but damn that's sneaky.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:42 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


So is MetaFilter infested with Russian trolls, or do we come up with pro-Russian and anti-American commentary just by nature? [/tongue-in-cheek]

I'm actually posting from my Putin yacht docked at Sevastopol, and it's really lovely out here. just goes to show you that the best way to live is to do what you love
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:43 AM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


I actually know somebody - a really bright and extremely well educated west European guy - who makes his living this way, posting Pro-Russian agitprop in news site comment sections and on Facebook while based in a neighboring east European country. He is subsidized by at least one governmental branch that I know of (and not in Russia.) I have actually confronted him with it and gotten sheepish responses... he really believes that NATO and the EU are somehow controlled by Atlanticist fascists scheming on behalf of the Ukrainian fascists in Obama's secret bunker and the evidence is all out there to see... just read this screed in an obscure Russian English language news service and the veils will lift from your eyes.

We don't hang out much anymore.
posted by zaelic at 8:43 AM on June 2, 2015 [10 favorites]


So is MetaFilter infested with Russian trolls, or do we come up with pro-Russian and anti-American commentary just by nature? [/tongue-in-cheek]
alasdair

I know you're joking but there has been a lot of weirdly pro-Putin comments here lately.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:47 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Adrian Chen does some damn good work.
posted by NoraReed at 8:48 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


from the front, its perfect gray symmetry, framed by the rectangular pillars that flank its entrance, suggests the grim impenetrability of a medieval fortress. Behind the glass doors, a pair of metal turnstiles stand guard at the top of a short flight of stairs in the lobby

I'm not up on my history, but medieval warfare must have been BRUTAL! What kind of sick, twisted mind could ever have conceived of such monstrous tactics as glass entrance doors and turntstiles?
posted by Hoopo at 8:48 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Anybody know how much you make for Troll pay?
posted by uraniumwilly at 8:48 AM on June 2, 2015


> It's not about swaying opinions, Card Cheat—it's about removing the ability to sway opinions by polluting discourse so thoroughly.

Yeah, that makes sense. I don't think I've commented anywhere other than Metafilter in years, because...well, you know.


Sadly, I don't think that Metafilter's moderation system would really scale to a larger site, because no one wants to pay money to actively moderate discussion forums. The larger sites can be gamed because site membership and moderation is automated, in whole or in part. Once you automate it and start taking people out of the equation, it's only a matter of time before somebody starts gaming it.

And even our system isn't unbeatable. I'm sure if we were big or important enough for Russia to care about us, they'd either slow infiltrate us over time (which could totally be done, it would just be time and labor intensive), or just DDOS us repeatedly to kill the community.

It's really hard to win against a wealthy nation-state that doesn't even keep up a pretense of playing by the rules.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:49 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm convinced that the only folks left who could outmaneuver the Russians at spycraft are EVE Online players.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:51 AM on June 2, 2015 [17 favorites]


Anybody know how much you make for Troll pay?
posted by uraniumwilly at 8:48 AM on June 2 [+] [!]


20 rubles - same as in town.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:53 AM on June 2, 2015 [19 favorites]


Goonswarm -- wait, I'm sorry: The Imperium -- could defeat the Russians in mere hours.
posted by gsh at 8:54 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Lousy Badenovs, at it again. Better call moose and squirrel.
posted by jonmc at 8:57 AM on June 2, 2015 [10 favorites]


i just earned 50000 rubles in one week working from home. email earnbigbux947@spamco.ru today!
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 8:59 AM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


Are we sure that we're living in the real world, and not in a Bruce Sterling novel?
posted by theorique at 8:59 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


> It's really hard to win against a wealthy nation-state that doesn't even keep up a pretense of playing by the rules.
posted by leotrotsky

eponysterical?
posted by rude.boy at 9:00 AM on June 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


I'm convinced that the only folks left who could outmaneuver the Russians at spycraft are EVE Online players.

I realize this is a joke, but --
"Inside EVE Online's Fear of a Russian Star Cluster"
A string of cyrillic in my overview catches my eye. Suddenly I'm alert, my cheeks flushed, eyes wide open. I scan my monitor, searching for the source. It turns out to be just a labeled cargo canister, the de facto recruitment billboards of EVE Online’s universe, New Eden. The tension falls away but so has my comfort. I take my ship home on manual.

I am not alone in this fear. Catherine Goodfellow has even written an academic essay for the University of Manchester on the topic. “The game EVE Online,” she says, “has a relatively small Russian population, but there is a trend in the surrounding community to perceive Russian players as a disproportionately large threat to game stability.”
Whether that reputation is justified or just a stereotype is an open question (the above article suggests it's unjustified; I'm in no position to judge), but in the venn diagram of "Russians" and "EVE online players" there's a significant overlap in terms of EVE's player population.
posted by cjelli at 9:05 AM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's become too cliché by this point to note how absolutely we're all living in a Gibson novel now, hasn't it?
posted by ominous_paws at 9:05 AM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


He's right, you know that?
posted by Naberius at 9:06 AM on June 2, 2015


This appears to have been extremely terrible spycraft.

1. Everyone involved had to reveal themselves publicly.

2. The only experience Adrien Chen has with spying is that he bought a stolen iPhone one time.

3. Giving the otherwise bland story a personal twist will ensure that more people to read it.

Wealthy Nation States That Don't Play By The Rules send a flying robot to blow up your house in the middle of the night, desperate nation states pay a bigot to post sockpuppet propaganda in the comments section of your newspaper articles.
posted by ethansr at 9:11 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


My contribution to the "living in a Gibson novel" derail.
posted by Leon at 9:11 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would be great at this job, wish more American companies were doing it. Monsanto, give me a call, everybody already thinks you are doing this anyway.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:12 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


How do I apply?
posted by bgal81 at 9:17 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's become too cliché by this point to note how absolutely we're all living in a Gibson novel now, hasn't it?

The worst part is we get all the international/corporate intrigue and shittiness without the awesome leather and chrome and vinyl style.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:20 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Russian Use Of Anonymous Internet Trolls Incompatible With Democracy, Say Senior Officials With Knowledge of the Situation
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:21 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


America is failed homosexual stat

Russia stronk, Putin stronk
posted by Avenger at 9:22 AM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


Why pay for Metafilter accounts when a comment drawing false equivalence with America will show up in any thread within an hour, completely free of charge?
posted by Behemoth at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


In a similar same vein: fake tweets 'from' Baltimore 'rioters.'
Reactions ranged from shock and disgust to disbelief and amusement when a series of images started to circulate showing looters proudly displaying their ill-gotten gains. Not all, however, was as it seemed.
posted by postcommunism at 9:48 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Monsanto, give me a call, everybody already thinks you are doing this anyway.

Monsanto doesn't need to care what you think.
posted by maryr at 9:56 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you think there aren't secretive "public relations" firms in the US doing exactly the same thing for large corporations and political parties... you're wrong.
posted by miyabo at 10:01 AM on June 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


The more I learn about the Kremlin's tactics and capabilities -- especially on the tech front -- the more surprised I am that Obama's hair hasn't gone completely gray.

(Yet.)
posted by argonauta at 10:03 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


there has been a lot of weirdly pro-Putin comments here lately.

Oh yeah? Well MeFi fans of Corner Gas will recognize 'putin' as what people do whenever Wullerton is mentioned.
posted by Twang at 10:19 AM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


If you think there aren't secretive "public relations" firms in the US doing exactly the same thing for large corporations and political parties... you're wrong.

Every single one of those companies except for Grassrootz Relations and Reputation LLC are the spawn of Satan and should be driven into the sea by the forces of good. Every single one. Except Grassrootz Relations and Reputation LLC.

Grassrootz Relations and Reputation LLC.

Grassrootz Relations and Reputation LLC.
posted by griphus at 10:24 AM on June 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


"In Soviet-regressing Russia [something something] you!"
posted by gottabefunky at 10:27 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't know, you'd think they could get some better celebrity endorsements.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 10:28 AM on June 2, 2015


Relevant XKCD

I haven't finished reading the article, but this does feel like the bleeding edge of a not too distant future. I know that every attempt to build real trust networks have failed but it seems like eventually we are going to need some kind of system to help us decide who to listen to and who not to.
posted by macrael at 10:29 AM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


And regarding corporations using similar tactics, ah, Monsanto, you never fail to disappoint.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:34 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


The source for that appears to be a DailyKos diary and the only actual quote on what they are doing is, "One student asked what Monsanto was doing to counter the “bad science” around their work. Dr. Moar, perhaps forgetting that this was a public event, then revealed that Monsanto indeed had “an entire department” (waving his arm for emphasis) dedicated to “debunking” science which disagreed with theirs."

Debunking scientific studies is not the same as trolling community sites, regardless of how one feels about the company in question.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:43 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


there has been a lot of weirdly pro-Putin comments here lately

This actually comes as a huge surprise. Where did this happen?
posted by Hoopo at 11:12 AM on June 2, 2015


Ultimately, there seems very little functional difference between what the FAN is tasked by its government to do, and the kind of free-market-John-Stosselification of our media here in the West is tasked with doing to muddy important discussions that can have unprofitable outcomes for Monsanto shareholders, etc. In the end, it's all about keeping public opinion in line through confusion and manipulation.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:15 AM on June 2, 2015


Well, I've gotten several unsolicited emails that got through my spam filter recently saying "forget ISIS and the Islamists; Putin and Russia are the ones planning a World War right now". Maybe somebody's doing a little Reverse Psychology?
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:25 AM on June 2, 2015


It’s the trolling story that keeps on giving, with all the regularity of a herpes outbreak, but with no memory to go with it, because each time this Internet Research Agency story is reported, it’s more shocking than the last time.

Your typical Russia apologist will look at this and whinge as they do about the ol’ double-standard. And that’s certainly true: Israel is notorious for paying legions of social media trolls to wage hasbara PR wars with its critics. Ukraine established an actual Ministry of Truth and plays online underdog in its trolling wars with Russia, even though Ukraine hardly suffers from hostile western opinion the way its armed forces suffer on the battlefield against Russia.

It’s not just evil governments who corrupt and despoil social media — powerful private corporate interests from the Koch brothers to Big Agro to Libertarians to you name it, have been poisoning comments sections, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook and everywhere else in virtual DemocracyLand pretty much since these forums first appeared.
Mark Ames on the recycling of this story earlier this year.
posted by RogerB at 11:34 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's not just the Russians.
Google around and you'll find that around tenish years ago there was a story reported about the NSA/military having contracted to create a huge program that is able to manage dozens to hundreds of different online accounts per person, each with their own "personality". If anyone believes that the government has contracted for such a thing and is not actually using it ... well then you're probably listening to the dozens of people telling you that such thinking is excessively paranoid.

I would not be surprised at all if many of the major corporations (looking at you Apple) do such things as well in major online forums.

Manufacturing Consent.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 11:41 AM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


This explains those mysterious Twitter users who follow me sometimes, who have few followers and whose stream is all vacuous motivational messages and random observations of no identifiable narrative. Backstory for black propaganda. I don't think you'd need a multi-million dollar research and development programme to create tools to create and manage thousands of these: any halfway competent designer could sketch out the major components in half an hour.

It is worrying, how vulnerable social media is to well-concerted fakery. And when you do get MSM organisations who stick to verifying stories before running with them, you get waves of angry punters saying "Why hasn't the BBC run this story yet? WAKE UP!".

There is no alternative to creating systems of trust that match the new media.
posted by Devonian at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


This explains those mysterious Twitter users who follow me sometimes, who have few followers and whose stream is all vacuous motivational messages and random observations of no identifiable narrative.

I think it's just more likely they're part of botnets used for marketing purposes. Either to occasionally tweet promotional messages themselves, or to burnish the follower counts of other bots doing the same.

Don't be too quick to blame clandestine intents when avaricious intents are much more common.

This is not to say there aren't numbers station bots, propaganda bots, etc. running on twitter. Just for those that rely on some kind of rhetorical involvement aren't very effective. It takes a human to hold a really bad opinion.
posted by turntraitor at 12:46 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Statistically speaking, at least twelve of your Facebook friends are squirrels.
posted by miyabo at 12:53 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


You think I make too fine a distinction between marketing and black propaganda? #equivalenceisalltherage
posted by Devonian at 1:20 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Gawker had an article last year (recapitulated recently) about that shady photo exhibition:
At a previous iteration of the show, in Berlin, a "silent guy" visited, told the organizers he liked what he saw, then left. Later, he came back with a bag of cash and dropped it for them with no explanation.
If that bag didn't have a giant dollar sign on the side of it, I will be quite disappointed.
posted by mhum at 1:25 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why pay for Metafilter accounts when a comment drawing false equivalence with America will show up in any thread within an hour, completely free of charge?

I think we all know that in Capitalist America the troll armies deploy domestically.
posted by srboisvert at 2:03 PM on June 2, 2015


Israel to pay students to defend it online
An Israeli official said Wednesday that scholarship recipients would be free to decide whether or not to identify themselves as part of the program, which would begin within months.

"Everyone who believes in the cause, and wants to join, can join," he told The Associated Press. He said the office was looking to budget $778,000 for the project, and that the national Israeli student association would select participants from a pool of applicants.
There is little new nor unique with Russia's programme.
posted by standardasparagus at 2:04 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Statistically speaking, at least twelve of your Facebook friends are squirrels.

Coffeepot McKittens is a former lawyer and current massage therapist and is anything but a squirrel!

His userpic clearly shows him to be a cat.
posted by maryr at 2:11 PM on June 2, 2015


I think Isreal is a pretty cool guy. Eh kills aleins and doesnt afraid of anything.
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:27 PM on June 2, 2015


When Comment is Free first started in the Guardian, if there was an article about Israel that was even slightly critical - and they were mostly, let's face it, usually more than slightly critical - instantly there would be comments underneath defending Israel and decrying its critics as ... well, the usual stuff. It wasn't the uniformity or tenor of the positions taken that suggested the comments were professionally organised, or the vigour with which those positions were prosecuted, but the rapidity with which the comments appeared. According to Wikipedia that was 2006, so it's been going on a while.
posted by Grangousier at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2015


Wait...how do we know we're not being trolled that there are organized Russian trolls?
posted by telstar at 2:49 PM on June 2, 2015


We dance Mazurka.
posted by clavdivs at 3:14 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


In Russia, internet Godwins you.
posted by RakDaddy at 3:34 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


There are definitely secretive paid trolls operating in the US, it's just a matter of where and in what form.

I think PR firms employ them most clearly in massive numbers. Clients to those PR firms might be big corporations, major movie studios or record labels, etc. I believe I've encountered them a few times by virtue of having tweets go viral. The most recent instance I can think of: I tweeted something about the incident of Native Americans walking off the set of the new Adam Sandler movie, and my tweet blew up to get a thousand or so retweets/favorites. I started getting accosted by Sandler apologist trolls who wanted to engage in disingenuous debate with me, and each one of them were doing full-time duty on twitter in responding to people. It seemed as though it was a full-time job for them to be engaging in these debates with strangers. Then I got roped into a troll vs. counter-troll thing, where a counter-troll was screenshotting racist things my troll was saying on Instagram, and that counter-troll had some kind of extensive campaign going against her. I remember thinking, "Why do these people have 9,000 followers?" Probably they were all fake or part of an extensive troll network.

It all felt really weird. I'm not sure what all that was about, but after reading this article, I'm starting to think it was some kind of clandestine PR firm employed by Sandler's production company, or the distributor Netflix or who knows. It's not even the first time it's happened, either. It makes me wonder how many of our interactions with people on the internet should be taken at face value.
posted by naju at 8:01 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Our great leader Matt strong like bull. MetaFilter is resistant to troll.

Moose and squirrel have no chance.
posted by ostranenie at 9:06 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Everyone who believes in the cause, and wants to join, can join," he told The Associated Press. He said the office was looking to budget $778,000 for the project [...]

If I were trying to secretly manipulate public opinion I wouldn't start by sending AP a press release. And I'd spend a lot more than $778,000, too.

When Comment is Free first started in the Guardian, if there was an article about Israel that was even slightly critical - and they were mostly, let's face it, usually more than slightly critical - instantly there would be comments underneath defending Israel and decrying its critics as ... well, the usual stuff.

CIF has gotten somewhat better, but it used to be very tendentious, and not even in an interesting way. And the comments were sometimes sickening. I mean really nasty, nasty stuff about Jewish conspiracies or how Jews should have learned better last time. There's a website that monitors it from that perspective, and my perception (I haven't followed it regularly) is that its criticisms used to be primarily about anti-Semitic content and anti-Semitic comments, but now they're mostly criticisms of tendentiously or lazily anti-Israel stuff. For instance, I thought this one made a good point; it's valid criticism and should be part of the public debate.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:33 AM on June 3, 2015


It's kind of poetic that, when trying to discredit the NYT journalist, the professional trolling firm went straight for Godwin.

Also, there's something mildly terrifying about all this. What's the motive behind these elaborately detailed hoaxes?
posted by schmod at 5:43 AM on June 3, 2015


The godwin was pitch-perfect. I feel like the article trolled me. Metatroller.
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:36 AM on June 3, 2015


For instance, I thought this one made a good point; it's valid criticism and should be part of the public debate.

Which article did you mean to link to here? The hyperlinked text goes nowhere, which is pretty funny, but probably not intentional.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:53 AM on June 3, 2015


> There is no alternative to creating systems of trust that match the new media.

There is at least one alternative, which is to disregard all of it.
posted by jfuller at 7:00 AM on June 3, 2015


Which article did you mean to link to here? The hyperlinked text goes nowhere, which is pretty funny, but probably not intentional.

Argh. The cold hand of The Guardian reaches out from beyond teh grav. I meant to link this: Evidently, the Guardian doesn’t have any file photos of Palestinian rockets

I think it's a worthwhile point: if you're illustrating an article about a Palestinian rocket fired in May 2015, you should probably not illustrate it with a photo of an Israeli attack in 2014. Also, you should probably not have an entirely unrelated caption that looks as if it's meant to deflect attention from the article itself. So that's good criticism, in my view: The Guardian seems to have a problem with sub-editors (or whoever) subverting their stories.

This subsequent post, however, is a bit what-aboutish. Yes, I think I think The Guardian would be more balanced if it had covered it, but the story is (sadly) not hugely newsworthy; The Guardian shouldn't be wasting people's time with most of its trivial stories on Israel and adding an extra one wouldn't make the situation better. But it's not an unreasonable criticism, it's not like it's saying "but you haven't reported the great improvements in orange harvests" or something like that.

Anyway, I just wanted to make those two points: that media critics aren't necessarily a bad thing, even when they're tendentious; and that The Guardian has apparently responded to its critics, because there are fewer complaints about actually offensive things.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:21 PM on June 3, 2015




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