The activity of Russian trolls in the West has already gotten a lot of media coverage. However, sometimes it seems that the seriousness of the problem is underestimated both in Ukraine and in the European countries. It were internet users from Poland, the Baltic States and the United States of America that first drew attention to the seriousness of the effect of Russian propaganda on public opinion outside Russia and Ukraine.
It should be noted that “trolls from Olgino” take their duties very seriously. Focused on foreign public, Russian trolls have good knowledge of English, they are able to debate and they know how to easily confuse gullible Europeans or Americans. The most “qualified” trolls are not limited to leaving comments under online articles or amateur forums. They prefer professional societies, such as the world famous network LinkedIn, which is used for job searching and for the exchange of professional resumes; the network also involves a number of international government organizations.
These communities are often visited by the foreign officials and analysts that are searching for up to date information. Kremlin propagandists prefer to use fake internet profiles and hide behind an assumed personality, making it virtually impossible to verify their true identity. For the Ukrainian audience the problem may at first seem to be far-fetched, since the country has been attacked by slanderous and aggressive propaganda for more than two years, leading the society to develop a protective response to libel. Most of us understand that it is useless to argue with internet trolls and we know that we are losing in numbers; we also comprehend that paid or brainwashed cyber-attacks are not worth our time and mental strain, and often we simply avoid pointless virtual battles. Moreover, very few people can out-survive the constant insults and threats without getting their spirits hurt.
Europeans and Americans believe that the point of view of any person deserves to be heard and respected. Westerners pay close attention to proposed information and give an equal share of trust (and mistrust) to all media, and most importantly – they do not allow themselves to belittle anyone’s personal experience. Putin’s trolls take advantage of foreign internet users, and in one of the instances, the individual under the name of Frenchman Thierry Laurent, wrote in a number of international communities the story about the “horrors” of his visit to Ukraine, including that he was detained by the SBU during his trip and how he was personally confronted with the “Kiev fascists.” As it turned out, “the Frenchman” wrote his creation from the area of St. Petersburg, and it turned out to be an ordinary fake troll profile.
The “higher level” trolls that focus on Europe and the United States, have a custom approach to different audiences. With the Germans, they prefer to play on the theme of German reunification and use a parallel with the “reunification” of Russia and the Crimea. With Hebrews, trolls talk about the horrors of “Ukrainian fascism” and they spread the lies about an alleged high anti-Semitism in Kyiv. Conversely, to please Muslim and radical-conservative parts of American society, they began to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Feeding on the traditional democratic society’s distrust of private security services, the trolls are actively using the theme of “it’s the fault of the CIA” in the war in Ukraine as well as in the Syrian conflict, simultaneously pointing out that such “foreign policy” hurts ordinary Americans. Believers are reminded that in the Arab countries Christians are being destroyed and that Russia, by contrast, is “Christian” and, therefore, an American-friendly country. If confronted by any opposition to libel, trolls usually do not give up, and try as much as possible to discredit the opponent in the eyes of the online audience.
“The most important method used by the Kremlin propagandists is distortion of facts and historical events. If you expose their lies, slanderous accusations to your personality will follow. To do this, trolls will carefully study your online profile and even do a Google search to find something/anything negative. In addition, they like to segment the groups of their opponents into different religions and nationalities, and then they look for contradictions between the groups in order to push them against each other” – recollects New Yorker and an expert on transport and logistics Cheikh Fall, who had encounters with Russian trolls in online expert communities, in an interview to Novyi Region, a Ukrainian online outlet.
“They also like to see your service record and will often visit your personal online homepage in order to cast doubt on the authenticity of your credentials. If they do not find any confirmation, the trolls go on to personal attacks, in order to knock you out of the conversation topic and to get you to focus on their insults,“ continues Cheikh.
“Their job is to create chaos, to disrupt the conversation, to misrepresent and to confuse the audience in any way possible. They will attack you, your opinions, and your values, make you change the subject twenty times over and try to sow any seed of doubt into the minds of rational readers. However, there is also a second category. They are those who, unfortunately, either got under the influence of Kremlin trolls or succumbed to some other form of propaganda. They do not get paid, but the trolls are actively using them to promote the agenda. They are called “useful idiots,” and they may be persuaded by means of a debate,” says another frequent participant in virtual discussions and a web technology specialist from Washington, Serge Breslaw.
“The three favorite methods of trolls is disinformation, a personality or opinion attack, and distraction from the topic of the conversation. This is the same tactic used by some news companies here, in the US, with the only major difference being that here they face serious competition. In addition, private companies deal with money, and the impact of their work does not lead to death or torture, as opposed to Russian propaganda,” said the New York lawyer and co-chairman of the American Bar Association James Berger.
While for people living in the post-Soviet space the phrase “active measures” might not ring a bell, it is one that influenced US society greatly during the Cold War. With the help of “active measures,” Soviet foreign intelligence services carried out activities that impacted foreign public opinion, as well as the actions of individuals, government and public organizations.
The KGB supported pro-Soviet forces and tried to influence the opinions of some senior officials and to discredit opponents. It is important to understand that in democratic countries many political decisions depend on public opinion. Officials and politicians prefer to avoid unpopular actions, and therefore the actions of Russian trolls are successful, to a certain extent. At the same time, in Ukraine there are very few specialists with a good knowledge of English that specialize in explaining the real situation in the country to Western audiences and participants of online communities. In fact, the attacks of the Kremlin propagandists on foreign audiences are mostly rebutted only by a few volunteers – “troll fighters.” Paradoxically most of them are American-born.