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The sad life of Putin’s “Troll Army”

Russian internet trolls
The sad life of Putin’s “Troll Army”
Article by: Anton Butsenko
Translated by: Kirill Mikhailov

Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, social networks and news website comment sections have suffered an avalanche of pro-Russian comments. An investigation revealed that at least part of that is just another front of Putin’s information war, with hundreds of commenters on the payroll. Recently, an interview with two ex-“Putin trolls” published by the St. Petersburg news website resonated in the “runet” (Russian internet), reporting on a bona fide internet comment factory employing about 250 people, many of whom, surprisingly, turned out to be not brainwashed propagandists, but ordinary people in search of money.

When asked why they had worked as paid bloggers for several months, the two former employees of “Internet Research” LLC ironically quote a Russian Internet meme: “I was young and needed money”. The company’s name has long been known to those interested in blog warfare. The paid trolls who recently used to huddle in Olgino at the outskirts of St. Petersburg, have moved to a new 4-storey office on the bank of the river Neva.

Around 250 people work 12-hour shifts, writing in blogs 24/7, working mostly in the Russian blogging platform Livejournal and a Facebook-esque social network Vkontakte. This is a full-cycle production: some write the posts, others comment on them. Most often they comment each other in order to boost the ratings. The refrain is always the same: the good Putin, the bad Poroshenko and the ugly Obama. The former workers at the Internet loyalty factory told about its inner workings.

They sit at an ordinary kitchen in an ordinary apartment. No portraits of the leaders on the walls. There’s a smell of soup. A cat gets under everyone’s feet. A young man and woman who met there and quit on the same day. They don’t regret this decision one little bit.

Thank Putin for the pies

You didn’t wake up with a thought “I’ll work as a paid internet commenter”, did you? How did you end up at the company, anyway?

Man: Friends kept urging me to, but I went there only when I got problems at my previous job. I came there, filled in a questionnaire and started working the very next day. I was hardly aware of what I was going to do. The most they said was that they “wrote posts”. I’ve never worked in the media. But somehow they did like my texts.

Woman: By the way, they don’t tell you what you will be doing until you start. They tell you you’ll be writing in a blog, like a housewife but in an office. Yeah, a housewife wakes up and starts writing about Ukraine, right.

Even the test assignment were nothing like that. You just had to write something about life. There actually were several interviews. I wasn’t hired right away. I don’t remember any loyalty tests either. I spent several months without work. I needed money, and the pay was good.

M: The most they asked me about that was: what’s your attitude to our government? I said it was neutral, I didn’t care.

How did you spend your days? What tasks did you get?

W: We worked 12-hour shifts for two days with two days off. A blogger’s quota is 10 posts a day, 750 characters each, a commenter has to write 126 comments and two posts. A blogger has three accounts to manage. You have to distribute the 10 assignments between them. An assignment consists of a talking point, most often news, and a conclusion you should reach. So you have to fit the solution to the answer. Roughly, you write that you’ve baked tasty pies which means that life in Russia is great and Putin is a good guy. Visit Russia Today’s website – all our assignments are there.

M: The news was from yesterday at best. There is no strategic planning in this respect. We wrote whatever the higher-ups cooked up in the morning. The assignments were borderline insane too. One of the first assignments was to write about an American’s documentary about Crimea. The legend was that a guy finished a cinema school in California and went to Crimea to film war and occupation, but found nothing of the sort. The main talking point was “my government deceived me”.

However, the name and the face of the man were astonishingly familiar – this was Miguel Francis. He shot  a well-known video in Moscow where a street cleaner chased him to give his phone back. The video was definitely staged. I mean this guy is essentially Russian, he’s been living and working in Moscow for a long time. So I realized that if they were bullshitting about such obvious things, everything else must have been worse.

It so happened that on my first day I worked unprepared and uncontrolled. I had to comment on a post on success in space research. And there was some utter nonsense. So I wrote something on the lines of OMG, you got another pretexts to feel proud that you’ll pray to for decades while living in shit. The teamleader ran up to me and started telling me off.

“My ex is like Poroshenko”

W: The people writing don’t actually understand what they are doing. They have certain tags they have to use in a text so they write them without a second thought. There used to be a topic “relationships are like Ukrainian politics” or “You know, my ex is like Poroshenko”.

You comment: “God, where the hell did he find her?” Being a commenter is more fun. You pick at the poster’s failures. But you still have to praise someone from the government in the end.

W: Actually it’s the only way to have fun at this kind of job. A commenter’s main task is to stir thing up under a post no one would need otherwise. We didn’t have to attack the top bloggers. So you see certain obvious drawbacks, like poor style and grammar, and poke at the author. Most of the people in our office didn’t have a good command of Russian, while it is known that only educated people vote for Putin…

M: There was once a news report that a larger percentage of people with higher education turned to supporting our president. And our guys wrote about it with an awful load of mistakes so it was a happy hunting ground for trolling:

W: Sometimes you had to comment on other people’s blogs with good hits just to show your nickname and someone to appear at your page.

What topic did you cover the most?

W: The main were: “Poroshenko is a dumbass and Putin actually rules Ukraine”, “Obama is a dumbass and Putin is great”, “Well done, Ministry of Defense, look at those shiny new tanks”, “Putin’s rating” and, definitely, “Crimea is ours”

M: Syria, the US, Putin (it doesn’t matter what he did, but if he did something, he did it right), the Ministry of Defense, Ukraine, rarely the opposition. For instance, we wrote nothing on Navalny’s criminal cases [Russian political blogger and corruption fighter currently under house arest for numerous fabricated cases]. We didn’t have to shit on anyone but Obama.

The main message against him was that Obama sends weapons to Syria and Putin shields it from him

The Minister of Defense is a cutie

Do they do any ideological indoctrination of the employees?

M: Something like that. The accent is mostly on teamleaders (team supervisors, basically). For instance, Alyona, one I used to know before, had been perfectly brainwashed. It got to the point that she hung a huge portrait of the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigy and told everyone that, while he is a cutie, he does watch all of us.

W: I think that’s for everyone to feel sick. But you can’t keep your eyes shut forever – you also have to type texts.

There were also lectures. Some political scientist came – it was the first time I heard his last name. He talked a lot about his success at elections. Then about Putin’s glorious policies: who else but him, that kind of stuff. But why is it so bad locally? Well, don’t mind that, Putin is still great. And he kept hammering it in. Some time later I stopped having hostile reactions – or any reactions; I just had to sit through the lecture.

Mostly people come not because they love Putin but because they have nowhere else to work. For instance, one room is occupied by a couple of retirees. They have nowhere else to work. That’s a good indicator of Putin’s Russia: the pension is small and you have nothing left to do but get paid to love Putin. And the money is good. Not many pleasant places will offer you 40 thousand rubles [$929 as of Nov 2.] a month.

Were you officially employed?

M: They did tell tales of official employment but we weren’t lucky enough to experience that.

W: They say about a quarter of the employees were employed officially.

How did money get to the company?

W: I don’t know the details. All I can say we got paid in cash. The Russian Post could have delivered the money for all I know – especially since it often came late.

M: See, a 40 thousand salary, which should be higher for the managers, makes about 10 million [$238 306 as of Nov.2] a month. There is also the new four-storeyed office: the rent, the electricity, the services.

Propaganda professionals

Did you take interest in your management? Were they in any political affairs?

M: Not in this sense, no. But you could say right off the bat that the direct management had never touched politics. There was a funny guy, Oleg. Imagine: a man with a huge beer gut, in an untucked denim shirt, walks around, dangles car keys on his finger like a taxi driver and tells you:  “If a man can write, he’ll write about anything”. The director general, stated in the charter as M.I. Bystrov – don’t even know what his name was – I saw only in my notice of resignation.

W: The teamleader was a 20-year old girl who’d never even worked in the media. She used to sell coffee. Well, she used to cook it and bring it to the customers on a tray, she dropped out of university. Now she is an important boss.

I don’t remember anyone leaving the company due to politics. Inside the company, there is growth. There was a guy who spewed 20 posts a day. Now he wears a tie and writes instructions how to spew 20 posts a day.

What’s the general atmosphere in the company?

W: At first the conditions were close to perfect: there was a lounge with sofas and table football, for one.

M: The room emptied gradually, the table football was the first to go. Then they carried the sofas out.

W: Recently the company started saving on everything. First they posted notices in the toilet to save paper towels. Then they just removed them and hung a single electric dryer. They started to fine people for being late. Introduced quality categories for posts. No one could name the formal criteria, however. People started quitting left and right.

M: A bathroom stall with a clogged toilet was just taped up. It stood like that for two weeks. Then we quit, so I don’t know its fate. Still, that’s telling.

W: There was also a rule: You can’t eat at work.

M: No, what they said was that you couldn’t have any food or drinks on the table. So I put everything on the floor.

W: The general impression? Disgust. The salary was tempting, I’ll give them that. We aren’t unique here. You can fight the disgust for a long time. People live like that for years. They curse their hated jobs but still go there in the morning. But we couldn’t take that anymore.

Translated by: Kirill Mikhailov
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