The Kremlin's comment trolls are real — as is the media's amnesia about them
The Russian Trolls Are Coming! The Russian Trolls Are Coming!
It’s every cybertopian’s nightmare: Barbarian hordes, in the form of Kremlin trolls, infiltrating the frictionless, innocent democratic paradise known as “online comments sections.” Inscrutable Russian savages, riding under the authoritarian banner of Putin the Terrible, sneaking into our Jeffersonian E-den, corrupting and poisoning the once-thriving social media idyll, valued for its earnest, civic-minded three-pointed-hat conversations and debates, where the crowd was wise and fair and incorruptible. Everything those savage Russkiis ain't.
The story of how Kremlin trolls are being weaponized to subvert our hallowed social media first broke into the English-language media in mid-March in an article headlined “The Trolls Who Came In From The Cold” — published in, ahem . . . ‘scuse me, somethin’ caught in my throat here... published on the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Yes, that's Radio Liberty, aka “Radio Liberation from Bolshevism” aka the US government’s psychological warfare media outfit set up by the CIA during the Cold War, and covered extensively in Pando by Yasha Levine.
So yes, the irony here is thick as Bill Casey’s brain tumor.
And as malignant, considering how much this Kremlin Trolls story has gone viral, as they say. A few days after the RFE/RL story, BBC (gah! government again!) followed up with “Inside Russia’s ‘Kremlin Troll Army’”, before lobbing the story back to Radio Liberation from Bolshevism (RFE/RL), which published a long (and rather interesting) tell-all interview with a defector from the Kremlin Troll Army named “Marat.”
The two government outlets bounced the Kremlin Troll Army story back and forth enough times to create critical hack mass, leading to sensational followups everywhere from the tech press to Vice, the New York Post, the Independent, and today, The Guardian.
What makes the story newsworthy is that it’s a rare look into a secretive new area in the PR industry,which we’ve all had to suffer one way or another: paid social media trolling. There’s so little reporting exposing how this area of PR exploits and corrupts social media on behalf of powerful clients — thanks to the almighty non-disclosure agreement, the most powerful secrecy weapon since Beria was retired — and here we have the name of the PR company (Internet Research Agency), an address (55 Savushkina Street, St Petersburg), and a Hollywood villain as the client: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
And yet — for all the sensational shocker value of the Kremlin Troll Army story, it turns out that this very same story has been reported before. More than a few times.
The RFE/RL story in March that all of today’s stories stem from first appeared in a local Petersburg paper, Moi Rayon (“My Region”) not exactly known for its muckraking, which titled its exposé “The Capital of Political Trolling” complete with photos, YouTube videos, and internal documents and screenshots of trolls.
And yet — a few weeks before the Petersburg story and before the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty story, Finland’s own government news behemoth, Yle (Finland Broadcasting Company), ran the exact same expose — dated February 20, 2015:
Yle Kioski Traces the Origins of Russian Social Media Propaganda – Never-before-seen Material from the Troll Factory
...what kind of a workplace employs people whose job is said to be to praise Putin’s Russia? Kioski investigated the background of the secret office building in Saint Petersburg that is called “the troll factory” and followed the life in it for three days. Scrolling down, we get a Google Maps screenshot of the building on 55 Savushkina, St Petersburg — plus screenshots of trolling habits, exclusive Vimeo interviews and gotcha clips, all the stuff we’ve come to expect from every version of this story.
And wouldtcha know it, there are more versions of this story. Earlier 1.0 versions, including the Atlantic’s “The Kremlin’s Troll Army” by Daisy Sindelair— who happens to work for Radio Liberation from Bolshevism Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
And a few months before that, Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon published his big Russian Troll exposé headlined, “Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America.” Ah, those leaked documents — FOIA’d documents, leaked documents, we don’t trust anything but leaked secrets anymore. Seddon’s piece, published almost a year ago, exposes the name of the troll factory:
“a firm called the Internet Research Agency. It’s based in a Saint Petersburg suburb..."Yep, that one.
And where did Seddon get his scoop? From a 2013 article in Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, exposing “Where the Trolls Live, and Who Feeds Them”.
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.
What makes the Kremlin Troll Armies different, I suppose, is that they’re the consummate alien invaders — authoritarian-minded bugs from their horrible bug planet invaded our Jeffersonian, horizontal, frictionless paradise.
And the upside is, we caught them! We caught the aliens through journalism, through leaked documents, through YouTube and Vimeo videos and Google Map addresses. It doesn’t matter that this story keeps running every six months, the same characters, same names, same address, same trolls. We caught the barbarians. That can only mean one thing: The crowd is wise. Our Jeffersonian social media paradise really does work.