Russian web brigades

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The web brigades (Russian: Веб-бригады), also known as Russia's troll army, Russian bots, Kremlinbots,[1] troll factory,[2][3] or troll farms are state-sponsored anonymous Internet political commentators and trolls linked to the Russian government. Participants report that they are organized into teams and groups of commentators that participate in Russian and international political blogs and Internet forums using sockpuppets and large-scale orchestrated trolling and disinformation campaigns to promote pro-Putin and pro-Russian propaganda.[4][5][6][7] It has also been found that articles on Russian Wikipedia concerning the MH17 crash and the 2014 Ukraine conflict were targeted by Russian internet propaganda outlets.[8][9][10]

Background[edit]

State sponsored online sockpuppetry and manipulation of online views is practiced by several countries, in particular by Russia, China, United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Vietnam and Ukraine.[11][12][13][14][15][16]

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 French journalist Anna Polyanskaya (a former assistant to assassinated Russian politician Galina Starovoitova[17]) 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 appeared to be organized by the Russian state security service.[18][19][20][21] According to the authors, about 70% of Russian Internet posters were of generally liberal views prior to 1998–1999, while a surge of "antidemocratic" posts (about 60–80%) suddenly occurred at many Russian forums in 2000. This could also be a reflection to the fact that access to Internet among the general Russian population soared during this time, which was until then accessible only to some sections of the society.

In January 2012, a hacktivist group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous 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).[22] Journalists who investigated the leaked information found that the pro-Kremlin movement had engaged in a range of activities including paying commentators to post content and hijacking blog ratings in the fall of 2011.[23][24] The e-mails indicated that members of the "brigades" were paid 85 rubles (about US$3) or more per comment, depending on whether the comment received replies. Some were paid as much as 600,000 roubles (about US$21,000) 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 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.[22][25]

In 2013, a Freedom House report stated that 22 of 60 countries examined have been using paid pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions, and that Russia has been at the forefront of this practice for several years, along with China and Bahrain.[26][27] In the same year, Russian reporters investigated the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, which employs at least 400 people. They found that the agency covertly hired young people as "Internet operators" paid to write pro-Kremlin postings and comments, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture.[28][29]

Protest against Donald Trump in New York City that was allegedly organized by Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.[30]

Some Russian opposition journalists state that such practices create a chilling effect on the few independent media outlets remaining in the country.[27]

Further investigations were performed by Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Institute of Modern Russia in 2014–15, inspired by the peak of activity of the pro-Russian brigades during the Ukrainian conflict and assassination of Boris Nemtsov.[31][32][33][34] The effort of using "troll armies" to promote Putin's policies is reported to be a multimillion-dollar operation.[35] According to an investigation by the British Guardian newspaper, the flood of pro-Russian comments is part of a coordinated "informational-psychological war operation".[36] One Twitter bot network was documented to use more than 20,500 fake Twitter accounts to spam negative comments after the death of Boris Nemtsov and events related to the Ukrainian conflict.[37][38]

An article based on 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".[39][40]

During his presidency, Donald Trump retweeted a tweet from an account operated by the Russians.[41]

Methods[edit]

Web brigades commentators sometimes leave hundreds of postings a day that criticize the country's opposition and promote Kremlin-backed policymakers.[24][27][28][29][42][43] Commentators simultaneously react to discussions of "taboo" topics, including the historical role of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, political opposition, dissidents such as 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).[24] Prominent journalist and Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev believes Russia's efforts are aimed at confusing the audience, rather than convincing it. He states that they cannot censor information but can "trash it with conspiracy theories and rumours".[29]

To avert suspicions, the users sandwich political remarks between neutral articles on travelling, cooking and pets.[29] They overwhelm comment sections of media to render meaningful dialogue impossible.[44][45]

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 internal opposition and relations with the West.[29] On an average working day, the workers 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.[43]

In 2015, Lawrence Alexander disclosed a network of propaganda websites sharing the same Google Analytics identifier and domain registration details, allegedly run by Nikita Podgorny from Internet Research Agency. The websites were mostly meme repositories focused on attacking Ukraine, Euromaidan, Russian opposition and Western policies. Other websites from this cluster promoted president Putin and Russian nationalism, and spread alleged news from Syria presenting anti-Western and pro-Bashar al-Assad viewpoints.[46][47]

In August 2015, Russian researchers correlated Google search statistics of specific phrases with their geographic origin, observing increases in specific politically loaded phrases (such as "Poroshenko", "Maidan", "sanctions") starting from 2013 and originating from very small, peripheral locations in Russia, such as Olgino, which also happens to be the headquarters of the Internet Research Agency company.[48] The Internet Research Agency also appears to be the primary sponsor of an anti-Western exhibition Material Evidence.[49]

Since 2015, Finnish reporter Jessikka Aro has inquiried into web brigades and Russian trolls.[50] In addition, Western journalists have referred to the phenomenon and have supported traditional media.[51][52]

Troll brigade activity[edit]

#Walkaway[edit]

Walkaway is a hashtag introduced by American political activist Brandon Straka in a viral video promoting the idea that members of the Democratic Party should "walk away" from the Party due to its political stances.[53] This meme was swiftly supported by Russian bots.[54][55]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Higgins, Andrew (30 May 2016). "Effort to Expose Russia's 'Troll Army' Draws Vicious Retaliation". Retrieved 12 January 2018 – via NYTimes.com. 
  2. ^ CNN, Tim Lister, Jim Sciutto and Mary Ilyushina,. "Putin's 'chef,' the man behind the troll factory". cnn.com. Retrieved 12 January 2018. 
  3. ^ "Russian troll factory paid US activists to help fund protests during election - World news - The Guardian". archive.org. 26 November 2017. Archived from the original on 26 November 2017. Retrieved 12 January 2018. 
  4. ^ Shaun Walker. "Salutin' Putin: inside a Russian troll house". the Guardian. 
  5. ^ Paul Gallagher (27 March 2015). "Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers". The Independent. 
  6. ^ Daisy Sindelar. "The Kremlin's Troll Army". The Atlantic. 
  7. ^ Olga Khazan. "Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army". The Atlantic. 
  8. ^ Sorokanich, Robert. "A Tweetbot Caught the Russian Gov't Editing Flight MH17 Wikipedia Info". Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  9. ^ Dewey, Caitlin (July 21, 2014). "Flight MH17's Wikipedia page edited by Russian government; An IP address associated with Vladimir Putin's office has made multiple edits to the Wikipedia page for the MH17 flight page". Toronto Star. The Washington Post. Retrieved August 10, 2016. 
  10. ^ Zeveleva, Olga (6 August 2014). "Knowledge is power: why is the Russian government editing Wikipedia?". The Calvert Journal. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  11. ^ "GCHQ has tools to manipulate online information, leaked documents show". The Guardian. 14 July 2014.
  12. ^ "Israeli propaganda war hits social media". The Sydney Morning Herald. 18 July 2014.
  13. ^ "China’s Paid Trolls: Meet the 50-Cent Party". New Statesman. 17 October 2012.
  14. ^ "From Britain to Beijing: how governments manipulate the internet". The Guardian. 2 April 2015.
  15. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/nov/06/troll-armies-social-media-trump-russian
  16. ^ http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2018/01/17/ANALYSIS-Unveiling-Iranian-pro-government-trolls-and-cyber-warriors.html
  17. ^ (in Russian) "They are killing Galina Starovoitova for the second time", by Anna Polyansky
  18. ^ (in Russian)Virtual Eye of the Big Brother by Anna Polyanskaya, Andrei Krivov, and Ivan Lomko, Vestnik online, April 30, 2003
  19. ^ "Russian-American Russian Language biweekly magazine "Vestnik": Main Page [English]". Vestnik.com. Retrieved 2014-05-19. 
  20. ^ Vestnik online, April 30, 2003
  21. ^ (in Russian) Eye for an eye by Grigory Svirsky and Vladimur Bagryansky, publication of the Russian Center for Extreme Journalism [1]
  22. ^ a b Miriam Elder. "Polishing Putin: hacked emails suggest dirty tricks by Russian youth group". the Guardian. 
  23. ^ (in Russian) "Kremlin's Blogshop" by Anastasia Karimova. Kommersant Dengi, February 13, 2012
  24. ^ a b c "Russia - Country report - Freedom on the Net - 2013". Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  25. ^ (in Russian) "Kommersant Director General Files Complain against Nashi Spokesperson". Izvestia, February 9, 2012.
  26. ^ [2]
  27. ^ a b c Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army, The Atlantic, by Olga Khazan, 9 October 2013
  28. ^ a b c d "Internet Troll Operation Uncovered in St. Petersburg", The St. Petersburg Times, by Sergey Chernov, 18, September,2013
  29. ^ a b c d e Ukraine conflict: Inside Russia's 'Kremlin troll army', BBC
  30. ^ "Michael Moore participated in anti-Trump rally allegedly organized by Russians". Fox News. February 20, 2018
  31. ^ "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money". The Interpreter Magazine. 2014-11-22. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  32. ^ "Documents Show How Russia's Troll Army Hit America". BuzzFeed. 2014-07-08. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  33. ^ "Novaya Gazeta Publishes List of Kremlin Trolls, Finds Further Information About 'Troll Farm'". The Interpreter Magazine. 2015-03-06. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  34. ^ Dmitry Volchek, Daisy Sindelar (2015-03-26). "One Professional Russian Troll Tells All". Radio Liberty. Retrieved 2015-03-26. 
  35. ^ Sindelar, Daisy (12 August 2014). "The Kremlin's Troll Army". The Atlantic. United States: Atlantic Media. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
    Seddon, Max (2 June 2014). "Documents Show How Russia's Troll Army Hit America". BuzzFeed. Retrieved 5 June 2015. 
  36. ^ Pomerantsev, Peter (2015-04-09). "Inside the Kremlin's hall of mirrors". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-04-11. 
  37. ^ Lawrence Alexander (April 2, 2015). "Social Network Analysis Reveals Full Scale of Kremlin's Twitter Bot Campaign". Global Voices Online. Retrieved April 13, 2015. 
  38. ^ "#KremlinTrolls and Other Acquaintances of RU EMB Canada". kremlintrolls.com. Retrieved September 12, 2015. 
  39. ^ Team "G" (How to unveil agents of siloviks at popular forums in the Internet), May 25, 2008
  40. ^ "The Kremlin's virtual squad". openDemocracy. 
  41. ^ Correll, Diana Stancy. "Trump retweeted fake account run by Russians". Washington Examiner. Retrieved 2017-11-02. 
  42. ^ "Russia - Country report - Freedom on the Net - 2014". Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  43. ^ a b Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America, buzzfeed
  44. ^ The readers' editor on… pro-Russia trolling below the line on Ukraine stories, the Guardian, 4 May 2014
  45. ^ Putin's G20 Snub, The Moscow Times, Nov. 18 2014
  46. ^ Entous, Adam; Nakashima, Ellen; Jaffe, Greg (25 December 2017). "Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options". The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 January 2018. 
  47. ^ "Open-Source Information Reveals Pro-Kremlin Web Campaign". Global Voices. Retrieved 2015-07-19. 
  48. ^ "Google выдал логово кремлевских троллей". Retrieved 2015-08-20. 
  49. ^ "Emails Link Kremlin Troll Farm to Bizarre New York Photography Exhibit". StopFake.org. August 20, 2015. Retrieved September 13, 2015. 
  50. ^ "Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro's inquiry into Russian trolls stirs up a hornet's nest". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  51. ^ "Article December 2017". 
  52. ^ "Press association supports EL PAÍS official targeted by Russian smear campaign". EL PAÍS. 
  53. ^ Fitzsimons, Tim (21 August 2018). "Meet Brandon Straka, a gay former liberal encouraging others to #WalkAway from Democrats". NBC News. Retrieved 22 August 2018. 
  54. ^ Cesca (9 July 2018). "Russian bots are back: #WalkAway attack on Democrats is a likely Kremlin operation". Salon. Retrieved 23 August 2018. 
  55. ^ David A. Love (17 July 2018). "Russian bots are using #WalkAway to try to wound Dems in midterms". CNN. Retrieved 23 August 2018. 

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)