||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (December 2015)|
The web brigades (Russian: Веб-бригады), commonly known in English media as the troll army, are state-sponsored Internet sockpuppetry groups linked to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. They are suspected to be organized 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. It has also been found that Wikipedia articles were targeted by Russian internet propaganda activities.
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) 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. 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 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). 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. The e-mails indicated 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 (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.
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. 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.
|“||Each commenter was to write no less than 100 comments a day, while people in the other room were to write four postings a day, which then went to the other employees whose job was to post them on social networks as widely as possible.||”|
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 the war in Donbass and assassination of Boris Nemtsov. The effort of using "troll armies" to promote Putin's policies is a multimillion-dollar operation. According to The Guardian investigation the flood of pro-Russian comments is part of a coordinated "informational-psychological war operation". 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.
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".
Paid Pro-government commentators are used to manipulate online discussions, commentators sometimes leave hundreds of postings a day that criticize the country's opposition and promote Kremlin-backed policymakers.
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). 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.
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. These trolls overwhelm comments sections of media to render meaningful dialogue impossible.
|“||The effect created by such Internet trolls is not very big, but they manage to make certain forums meaningless because people stop commenting on the articles when these trolls sit there and constantly create an aggressive, hostile atmosphere toward those whom they don’t like. The trolls react to certain news with torrents of mud and abuse. This makes it meaningless for a reasonable person to comment on anything there.||”|
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. 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.
In 2015 a researcher 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, Russian nationalism and one was spreading alleged news from Syria presenting anti-Western point of view.
In August 2015 Russian researchers have correlated Google search presence of specific phrases with their geographic origin, observing a phenomenon of significantly increased number of 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 notorious Internet Research Agency company.
- Cyberwarfare in Russia
- Operation Earnest Voice
- Corporate astroturfing: Internet Water Army
- Sockpuppet (Internet)
- Internet activism
- Internet police
- Information warfare
- Trolls from Olgino
- White propaganda
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