In a rare interview, a professional internet troll from Ukraine gives a candid confession of the techniques he and his fellow trolls use to drive social media users bonkers — and to suppress dissent in post-Soviet countries.
The infamous Saint-Petersburg-based “Kremlin troll factory” involved in the information war against Ukraine and the West is a well-known example of a troll farm. Yet this troll factory isn’t the only actor trying to change public opinion via social media and, for example, Facebook regularly takes down various groups of accounts for inauthentic behavior. The fake accounts are often used by press outlets and various commercial PR agencies often offering paid services of this kind. And those aren’t solely located in Russia, but across the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine.
The Ukrainian online media Texty had an opportunity to interview one of the Ukraine-based employees of one of such post-Soviet troll farms. To maintain the anonymity of the interlocutor, Texty doesn’t name him and doesn’t even mention the country in which the person remotely operates. Still, the mentioned details indicate that the country could have been Russian Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan, which are significantly pro-Russian and where elections took place in August-November 2020. Out of those, Belarus seems the most probable option, as the mentioned “fraternal Russia” narratives are mostly directed at Slavic countries of Belarus and Ukraine.
The interviewed professional troll gives a glimpse into the inner workings of such troll farms in post-Soviet countries and their goals, and gives advice on how to treat trolls and bots.
Have you ever imagined what an internet troll looks like?
We met one in a Kyiv coffee house. He looks about 25 years old, gives the impression of a well brought up and educated person. We immediately agree on the terms of confidentiality – to change the name, not to mention the details of the work that may lead to identification. He also asks not to call him a bot.
“I am not a bot, but a troll. Bots are mostly a mere program that distributes copy/paste comments. Now, trolls are living people who know how to formulate personal individual comments and manipulate public opinion through them.”
Our interlocutor works remotely from Kyiv with a bot farm of one of the post-Soviet countries. He claims he got the job on the recommendation of acquaintances as a “social media management (SMM) assistant.” They said, “a person is needed before the election.”
“In principle, I didn’t want to work in the domestic Ukrainian information field. It’s better to do what I do somewhere on the side,” he explains. “However, you can also get a job through the ads of an ‘SMM-manager position’ or ‘manager for user support on social networks,’ or ‘a person needed to like photos and leave feedback.'”
To confirm his words, the troll says that the bot farm is actively promoting such messages as the harmfulness of “color revolutions,” the idea of “brotherhood with the Russians” (both narratives are popular in Russian propaganda targeted at the ex-USSR republics or “near abroad” how the Russians call them, – Ed.)
“Meanings,” “vectors,” narratives
“The structure of the organization I work for goes like this: there is a single ‘control center’ which actually produces the basic ‘meanings’ and conducts general coordination. Next is, shall we say, the analysis and monitoring department, which monitors and analyzes the information space, looking for resonant topics and materials that may provoke an unwanted reaction in the population or, conversely, fully comply with the ideology of the regime.
After finding the relevant material, the department prepares a ‘vector’ — a kind of narrative, in the vein of which public opinion should be formed. The vector instructs that you need to criticize or support the chosen post, and outlines how to do it.
For example, if someone writes a post about the need to wear masks, the ‘control center’ may issue a narrative to criticize the author, in particular, by saying that masks are useless in any way. Or vice versa, to support it, claiming that masks save lives and it’s very important to wear them, and, in general, why someone dares to go outside without a mask disrespecting others and exposing them to danger.”
Once the “vector” is defined, it is sent to the “team coordinators” together with the link to the commendable material.
Coordinators directly coordinate trolls and bots, their shift schedules, provide them with narratives and links to materials to be commented on, read out prepared comments, and so on. The coordinator also communicates with the department of technicians who are responsible for creating and maintaining accounts and automating their operations.
After receiving links and vectors from the coordinator, the trolls prepare draft comments to send them back to him for approval. Comments may vary in scope, but should clearly convey the handed down “vector.”
“Why is the comment neutral when it should be aggressive?”
The instruction may be to leave under one post from 2 to 20 comments of the desired stuff.
“They do read out the draft comments, they can write back, for example, ‘why the comment is neutral when it should be aggressive or contain doubts?’” says the troll.
Only approved comments can be further placed under the posts. If you post an unapproved comment or one that does not match the “vector,” you may be fired. On their shift, each troll would process at least a dozen links, that’s about 100 comments.
The content for bots is simpler, it’s rather a copy/paste template like “Now it’s much better than before” and they distribute thousands of them.
“Also, they can use prefabricated memes, stickers, and gifs as comments” since people buy into them “with even more pleasure,” says the troll.
Among the responsibilities of trolls and technicians are also regular updates of the content on the accounts they maintain. This is done periodically, although not very often so that the troll accounts resemble the most ordinary average accounts of real users on social networks.
In general, trolls have a normal work schedule with morning, day, evening, or night shifts.
“It’s like at the factory: you check-in into the system, work, get checked out, log out,” explains the troll. Meanwhile, the troll salary is low, it’s around several hundred dollars.
Of course, this is more of a job for a student than for a person who has to support their family. Although on the plus side is that this is a good part-time job — you can choose a convenient shift that would not coincide with the main job.
“I regularly drink coffee in the same cozy, peaceful cafe, and I once began to notice that when there are no visitors, the barista is constantly looking at his laptop while clicking on the tabs with various accounts on social networks opened. Once I accidentally looked at his screen and saw there something close to what I have on mine – short remarks/comments in a table and a list of handles. I think this is a common thing across Ukraine.”
“The more we anger the author of the post we comment on, the better”
The work of trolls takes into account the number of likes under the comment and the reaction it causes.
“Reviews, likes, comments: the more we anger the author of the post under which we write, the better — since if people react, then we feel and communicate resonant opinions. It is believed that we achieve the best results when the real commentators under this post get influenced by our comments and change their minds, begin to doubt, or even hate the author of the post, or when the author of the post deletes it because of our comments.”
“People who care [about regime oppression — Ed.] exist in any country. At first, such a person would write something free-thinking, then we flock under their post with comments, and then they can disappear, or be fired, or even end up behind bars.”
In addition, the work of Internet trolls can be one of the reasons for the imprisonment of dissidents.
“Activists are undesirable and usually are opponents of any regime — we simply provoke a new level of aggression in them [activists – Ed.] so they go bonkers and can start saying or writing anything. And this entails responsibility,” my interlocutor shrugs.
According to the troll, once his bot farm was tasked with discrediting one of the ministers and his reputation on social media in order to eliminate subsequent negative reactions to his dismissal, and even to influence users to believe he is “unworthy of office,” “dangerous and corrupt.” The regime needed some kind of scapegoat.
“In a matter of only two weeks, social media users shifted from singing his praises to real hatred. Everyone welcomed his dismissal with joy and relief and called it the right decision,” said the troll.
“Or, for example, rallies — the all-time problem of any government. Now we have been watching rallies in Belarus for the fourth month in a row [the interview was taken in November 2020, – Ed]. For messages with posts that call to prevent the rallies, the main vector, would be: ‘Why go to rallies? They are visited only by the lower class of the population, lumpens, who don’t want to understand that the organizers are deceiving them.’ One day we worked so well that no one came to a rally at all.”
No need to know their local language
“People believe that a troll should constantly ‘hang out’ under a chosen post, throwing a comment every few minutes. The work of the troll is built on a slightly different premise.
“The troll has several dozen accounts, each of those has several social networks at once – it’s like a real person who has Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Vkontakte, YouTube. So I’m like a real person who flips through the news feed and comments on various posts on a relevant social network.
“Technically, everything is automated, there are programs that allow keeping multiple accounts open, take into account the algorithms of social networks. The work, of course, is done through a VPN [a virtual private network that masks the original location of the user, – Ed.], so you can’t track their whereabouts,” says the troll.
His bot farm now works on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Telegram, and Vkontakte.
“Now the largest and most active audience is on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. TikTok is starting to catch up, there is already a large audience, but it is still considered something new.”
The bot farm doesn’t interact much with Odnoklasniki [Russia’s second popular social network, – Ed].
“This social network is almost dead, there is no target audience, no reasonable people, we almost don’t work with them,” said the troll.
They also avoid Twitter, although the reason is different: this social media isn’t too popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Another seemingly logical question about the working conditions in a foreign language environment seems insignificant to the troll. Namely, the need to know the local language. As in many other post-Soviet countries, as well as in Ukraine or the country where the troll works, the Russian language continues to dominate.
Many locals can’t properly speak their language, they speak only Russian
“Many locals don’t really know their own language and speak only Russian. That’s why it’s enough to know just a few words in their language, and they will take you for one of them,” says the interlocutor.
Although the local population is already beginning to realize that the language barrier is a serious obstacle to Russian propaganda.
“The examples of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia show how the influence of trolls on social networks can be almost eliminated with the language barrier — their young people no longer communicate in Russian and don’t use it on social media. Even Ukrainian-language Facebook uses sometimes laugh at comments that took a completely different meaning after being translated from Russian via Google Translate,” he explains.
Some opinion leaders try to communicate only in their national language. Although the propagandists have their own answer to this.
“Granted it is rare, but sometimes, like bots, we receive some ready-made comments in the local language. We only need to post them, so to speak, dilute the Russian content with authenticity,” said the troll.
Just ban them
In general, according to the interlocutor, people everywhere treat the Internet and social media as something totally safe, their very own thing.
“Someone sends you a friend request and likes some of your photos, and that’s it — you add a user to your friends, you give them access to yourself. And the troll gets an opportunity to comment on your posts.”
Similarly, he says, people don’t understand that many seemingly innocent social media groups, whose posts they repost, also exit to manipulate their opinions.
“For example, a group about picturesque Ukraine that would have only nice photos and positive news about Ukraine, such a group can actually be created somewhere in Moscow by a troll like me, because everyone loves good photos and inspiring posts. And then a year and a half later, they would fill it with the content their customer needs. Or a group with sad historical facts about Ukraine — murders, rapes, betrayals — would create the image of disadvantaged, deceived Ukrainians. It is easy to promote revenge or justice through the followers of such a group, or, conversely, to create the image of a humiliated, poor nation,” says the troll.
“People don’t know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, they are driven by anything: scandalous headlines, gossip, outright fakes — most don’t even think about the accuracy of the information, source, date of creation,” adds the Internet troll.
At the same time, he says it is very easy to tell a troll or a bot,
“Open their profile, it may lack a photo, be registered in random groups, have no posts. Usually, a number of bots comment one after another, and they may even have the same date of account creation and of their profile photos.”
Asked what advice can he give to a person under troll or bot attack, the interlocutor answers,
“Enable friends-only commenting and you should know those added as friends personally. Plus, if it’s a bot, you should just ban it. This is the only way to fight them. Their technical capabilities are not limitless either. And in general, if you have your own opinion, it doesn’t matter what is written under your post. Today, any opinion can be criticized. And very often this is done deliberately – in order to discredit a person, to make them doubt their views. Our people are full of complexes, for some reason they always want approval or to get liked. Therefore, I would simply advise not to react to such comments, but to ban their authors and block them.”
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