#act power thursdays: Trolls on the Kremlin payroll

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In Russia, it is

Every Thursday, I am specifically grappling with the question as to how states can bring power to bear in an interdependent, hyper-competitive world. Do states analytically grasp the world surrounding them? Do they forge power instruments suitable to the current geopolitical context and apply them skillfully? The first case study I am currently compiling is Russia, for the simple reason that Russia, in contrast to most European countries, seems to be perfectly willing and able to see the world through spectacles of power.

What strikes me as interesting is that Russia’s view of the world emphasizes the conflictual nature of international politics (more on Russian military doctrine in later posts) and, as a consequence, its willingness to fight its opponents by all means at its disposal. In this ongoing confrontation, a large emphasis is put on the role of information as a power vector.

When it comes to power, it is of course hard to reinvent the wheel, and as we have seen in my post last week, Russia, via its Soviet past, has quite some experience with “active measures", i.e., the use of
slogans, arguments, disinformation, and carefully selected true
information to influence the attitudes
and actions of foreign publics and governments. How does today’s Russia engage in such “active measures”? How does it practically organise its “information war”? Not surprisingly, the internet, and social media, have become an important battle ground.

Last year, an activist, Lyudmila Savchuk, made the existence of troll armies on the payroll of the Kremlin public. Savchuk worked in the non-descript office building in St Petersburg pictured below, which according to her houses the facilities of an army of people working 12-hour shifts around the clock to shape Russia’s information environment.

This was not the first revelation of such a kind. In 2003, Russian journalists published an article on active pro-government, anti-democratic, anti-foreigner web brigades changing the prevailing mood on the Russian internet (link to article in Russian). And in 2012, Russian hackers published emails of a pro-Kremlin youth group which payed bloggers and journalists to post pro-Putin content
online, to vote down Putin-critical youtube videos or to leave comments on Putin-critical articles.

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55 Savushkina Street, St Petersburg, supposed headquarters of Russia’s ‘troll army’.
Photograph: Shaun Walker for the Guardian

What does it mean to work on the front line of the information war as part of the Kremlin’s troll army? More employees have spoken up providing further details on such troll activities. Employees earn around £520, $790, EUR655 a month to write internet content, or to post comments on social media or webpages. Employees work in closely supervised teams and receive strict guidance as to what to comment on and how to frame comments.

“The scariest thing is when you talk to your friends and they are
repeating the same things you saw in the technical tasks [point-by-point cues of  themes to address related with latest news, my addition], and you
realise that all this is having an effect…”

Who writes those “technical tasks” for the Kremlin troll armies? Some department within the FSB (Russian State Security Service), supposedly.

Of course one can disregard weird utterings in comment sections, or not click on suggested links. But what makes such influence campaigns potentially dangerous is the possibility to quickly disseminate false information conducive to creating confusion, or panic, thereby destabilising a country. An example would be false information circulated on social media in September 2015 regarding a chemical accident in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana.

It seems that rather than inventing something new, Russia is innovatively and creatively adapting its “active measures” to cyberspace. Not surprisingly, others, including the United States, are in the game as well.

Johanna M

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