Web brigades

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The web brigades (Russian: Веб-бригады) are alleged state-sponsored Internet sockpuppetry groups linked to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. They are purported to be teams of commentators that participate in Russian and international political blogs and Internet forums using sockpuppets to promote pro-Russian propaganda.

Background[edit]

The earliest documented allegations of the existence of "web brigades" appear to be in the April, 2003 Vestnik Online article "The Virtual Eye of Big Brother" by a French journalist Anna Polyanskaya (a former assistant to assassinated Russian politician Galina Starovoitova[1]) and two other authors, Andrey Krivov and Ivan Lomako. The authors claim that up to 1998, contributions to forums on Russian Internet sites (Runet) predominantly reflected liberal and democratic values, but after 2000, the vast majority of contributions reflected totalitarian values. This sudden change was attributed to the appearance of teams of pro-Russian commenters who seem to be organized by the Russian state security service.[2][3][4][5] According to authors, about 70% of audience of Russian Internet were people of generally liberal views prior to 1998–1999, however sudden surge (about 60–80%) of "antidemocratic" posts suddenly occurred at many Russian forums in 2000.

In January 2012, a hacktivist group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous have published a massive collection of email allegedly belonging to former and present leaders of the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (including a number of government officials).[6] Journalists investigation into the leaked information found that the pro-Kremlin movement had been engaging in all kinds of digital activities, including paying commentators to post content and hijacking blog ratings in the fall of 2011.[7][8] The e-mails indicate that members of the "brigades" were paid 85 rubles (about 3 US dollars) or more per comment, depending on whether the comment received replies; some were paid as much as 600,000 roubles (£12,694) for leaving hundreds of comments on negative press articles on the internet; and were presented with iPads. A number of high-profile bloggers were also mentioned as being paid for promoting Nashi's and government activities. The Federal Youth Agency whose head (and the former leader of Nashi) Vasily Yakemenko was the highest-ranking individual targeted by the leaks refused to comment on authenticity of the e-mails.[6][9]

In 2013, a Freedom House report stated that Russia has been using paid pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions and has been at the forefront of this practice for several years.[10][11]

In 2013, Russian reporters investigation into the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, which employs at least 400 people, that covertly hired young people as "Internet operators" that are being paid to write pro-Kremlin postings and comments on the Internet, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture.[12][13]

Some Russian opposition journalists point out that such practices creates a chilling effect on the few independent media outlets that remain in the country.[11]

Further investigations were performed by Novaya Gazeta and Institute of Modern Russia in 2014–15, inspired by the peak of activity of the pro-Russian brigades during war in Donbass and assassination of Boris Nemtsov.[14][15][16][17] According to The Guardian investigation the flood of pro-Russian comments is part of a coordinated "informational-psychological war operation".[18] One Twitter bots network was documented to use over 20'500 fake Twitter accounts to spam hateful comments after assassination of Boris Nemtsov and events related to the war in Donbass.[19]

Team "G"[edit]

An article based upon the original Polyanskaya article, authored by the Independent Customers' Association, was published in May 2008 at Expertiza.Ru. In this article the term web brigades is replaced by the term Team "G".[20][21]

Methods[edit]

Web brigades are government affiliated teams of commentators, for organised web postings and attacks on opponents, used to promote pro-Russian propaganda in political blogs and Internet forums.

Paid Pro-government commentators are used to manipulate online discussions, commentators leave sometimes hundreds of postings a day that criticize the country's opposition and promote Kremlin-backed policymakers.[8][11][12][13][22][23]

Propagandist commentators simultaneously react to discussions of "taboo" topics, including the historical role of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, political opposition, dissidents like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, murdered journalists, and cases of international conflict or rivalry (with countries such as Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, but also with the foreign policies of the United States and the European Union).[8] Prominent journalist and Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev, believes Russia's efforts are aimed at confusing the audience, rather than convincing it. Its a reverse censorship", they cannot censor the information space, but can "trash it with conspiracy theories and rumours", he argues.[13]

Typical troll accounts, Moy Rayon noted, were operated by people posing as "housewives" and "disappointed US citizens". To avert suspicions, the fake users sandwich political remarks between neutral articles on travelling, cooking and pets.[13] These trolls overwhelm comments sections of media to render meaningful dialogue impossible.[24][25]

A collection of leaked documents, published by Moy Rayon, suggests that work at the "troll den" is strictly regulated by a set of guidelines. Any blog post written by an agency employee, according to the leaked files, must contain "no fewer than 700 characters" during day shifts and "no fewer than 1,000 characters" on night shifts. Use of graphics and keywords in the post's body and headline is also mandatory. In addition to general guidelines, bloggers are also provided with "technical tasks" - keywords and talking points on specific issues, such as Ukraine, Russia's opposition and relations with the West.[13] On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.[23]

Criticism[edit]

Alexander Yusupovskiy, head of the analytical department of the Federation Council of Russia (Russian Parliament upper house) published in 2003 an article "Conspiracy theory" in Russian Journal with criticism of theory of web brigades.[26]

Yusupovskiy's points included:

  • He thought that officers of GRU or FSB have more topical problems than "comparing virtual penises" with liberals and emigrants.
  • Commenting on the change of attitude of virtual masses in 1998–1999 authors evade any mention of the 1998 Russian financial collapse which "crowned liberal decade", preferring to blame "mysterious bad guys or Big Brother" for that change.
  • Authors exclude from their interpretation of events all different hypotheses, such as Internet activity of a group of some "skinheads", nazbols or simply unliberal students; or hackers able to get IP addresses of their opponents.
  • Authors treat independence of public opinion in spirit of irreconcilable antagonism with positive image of Russia.[26]

Sergey Golubitsky, journalist of Russian IT-related magazine Computerra commented on the story in July 2008,[27] concluding as follows.

Opposition web brigades[edit]

Tatyana Korchevnaya, a former candidate to the Deputy of the State Duma from the Other Russia list,[28] a former United Civil Front coordinator of the Primorsky Krai,[29] participant of protest demonstrations,[30][31] an author of the top tenth political blog of 2008 [32] claimed in February 2009 in her blog that she was a member of an organization of Russia's "discontented", aimed to run a mass Internet campaign to discredit the authorities.[33][34][35]

The project was allegedly coordinated by a Moscow-based manager, whose name Tatyana did not reveal.[34] The goal of the participants was massive Internet campaigning, disputing those who were contented with their living in Russia, advertising Garry Kasparov and Dissenters Marches, and talking about atrocities of the "bloody regime".[34] The participants used multiple nicknames to combat their opponents.[34]

Korchevnaya considered such scheme abnormal: "I believe that if someone is afraid to say what they think out loud from their own names then they are not a free person – it's as if they're playing for both teams."[34] She explained her confession with getting tired of the lie of those who she sincerely trusted before.[34] The other reason was a concern for herself:

According to an anonymous source Tatyana referenced to, after she left the project it was "launched on a larger scale than was planned at the start", with participants "planning to ditch their real life jobs and embark on this project full-time, especially now that they are going to get paid for it".[33]

See also[edit]

Literature[edit]

  • Jolanta Darczewska: The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation, a Case Study. Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw 2014, ISBN 978-83-62936-45-8 (PDF)
  • Peter Pomerantsev & Michael Weiss: The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money. The Institute of Modern Russia, New York 2014 (PDF)

References[edit]

  1. ^ (Russian) "They are killing Galina Starovoitova for the second time", by Anna Polyansky
  2. ^ (Russian)Virtual Eye of the Big Brother by Anna Polyanskaya, Andrei Krivov, and Ivan Lomko, Vestnik online, April 30, 2003
  3. ^ "Russian-American Russian Language biweekly magazine "Vestnik": Main Page [English]". Vestnik.com. Retrieved 2014-05-19. 
  4. ^ Vestnik online, April 30, 2003
  5. ^ (Russian) Eye for an eye by Grigory Svirsky and Vladimur Bagryansky, publication of the Russian Center for Extreme Journalism [1]
  6. ^ a b http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/feb/07/putin-hacked-emails-russian-nashi
  7. ^ (Russian) "Kremlin's Blogshop" by Anastasia Karimova. Kommersant Dengi, February 13, 2012
  8. ^ a b c https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2013/russia
  9. ^ (Russian) "Kommersant Director General Files Complain against Nashi Spokesperson". Izvestia, February 9, 2012.
  10. ^ [2]
  11. ^ a b c Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army, The Atlantic, by Olga Khazan, 9 October 2013
  12. ^ a b c d "Internet Troll Operation Uncovered in St. Petersburg", The St. Petersburg Times, by Sergey Chernov, 18, September,2013
  13. ^ a b c d e Ukraine conflict: Inside Russia's 'Kremlin troll army', BBC
  14. ^ "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money". The Interpreter Magazine. 2014-11-22. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  15. ^ "Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America". BuzzFeed. 2014-07-08. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  16. ^ "Novaya Gazeta Publishes List of Kremlin Trolls, Finds Further Information About 'Troll Farm'". The Interpreter Magazine. 2015-03-06. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  17. ^ Dmitry Volchek, Daisy Sindelar (2015-03-26). "One Professional Russian Troll Tells All". Radio Liberty. Retrieved 2015-03-26. 
  18. ^ Peter Pomerantsev (2015-04-09). "Inside the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-04-11. 
  19. ^ Lawrence Alexander (2015-04-02). "Social Network Analysis Reveals Full Scale of Kremlin's Twitter Bot Campaign". Global Voices Online. Retrieved 2015-04-13. 
  20. ^ Team "G" (How to unveil agents of siloviks at popular forums in the Internet), May 25, 2008
  21. ^ The Kremlin's virtual squad
  22. ^ Freedom of the net, Report 2014, freedomhouse
  23. ^ a b Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America, buzzfeed
  24. ^ The readers' editor on… pro-Russia trolling below the line on Ukraine stories, the Guardian, 4 May 2014
  25. ^ Putin's G20 Snub, The Moscow Times, Nov. 18 2014
  26. ^ a b "Conspiracy theory", by Alexander Yusupovskiy, Russian Journal, 25 April 2003
  27. ^ a b (Russian) "Between Kitchen and Workshop", by Sergey Golubitsky, July 23, 2008, for Computerra magazine
  28. ^ Full cell of agitators, November 2007, Kasparov.Ru (in Russian)
  29. ^ Events in the Far East, Polit.Ru, December 2008 (in Russian)
  30. ^ Militia in the form of protest, August 2005 (in Russian)
  31. ^ Bulletin of Russian Communists, 2006 (in Russian)
  32. ^ Tatyana Korchevnaya was included to the list of top ten Russia's bloggers (in Russian)
  33. ^ a b c Tatyana Korchevnaya's claims in her blog, Livejournal, February 24, 2009 (in Russian). See also the English translation of Korchevnaya's blog entry, performed by Anatoly Karlin
  34. ^ a b c d e f How Kasparov's "daughter" was cloned, by Elena Kalashnikova, internet newspaper Dni.Ru, February 29, 2009 (in Russian)
  35. ^ Response of Molodaya Gvardia on Tatyana's claims, February 25, 2009 (in Russian)