(Pa)trolling the RuNet

In Russia the information war isn’t just being waged on television and in print. Well-funded Kremlin-linked organisations are waging a battle for hearts and minds in cyberspace.

Alexandra Garmazhapova
22 May 2014

Russian pro-Kremlin bloggers have been active participants in the information war currently being waged to win over hearts and minds post-Crimea, and in the continuing Ukrainian crisis. Every day, thousands of comments are posted about the ‘Junta’ which has taken power in Kyiv, and the necessity for Russian forces to enter Eastern Ukraine. These bloggers have, supposedly, ‘liberated Crimea, and will liberate Novorossiya’ (referring to Eastern Ukraine). Supporters of Vladimir Putin consider Ukraine an 'artificially created state which does not really exist'

Dmitry Rogozin wrote on his Twitter ‘Oh, lads, what I wouldn't give to be in the same foxhole as the defenders of Slovyansk!’

After the May 2014 bloody events in Odessa, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin – well known for his radical nationalist views – wrote on Twitter: ‘Oh, lads, what I wouldn't give to leave my duties in a heartbeat and be in the same foxhole as the defenders of Slovyansk!’

Liberals, traitors, and perverts


Rogozin’s message has been widely distributed by pro-Kremlin activists, in particular by the Starikovites – members of writer and right-wing political thinker Nikolai Starikov's Great Fatherland Party. Starikov is famous for his radical imperialist views and his fundamental intolerance towards western values. His supporters are already working on putting together a 'lustration list’ of people whose activities they consider a danger to Russia. At a regular meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Great Fatherland Party not long ago Starikov added two names to the list: Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomaryov, whose 'crime' was their their lukewarm reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Party released a statement describing Navalny and Ponomaryov as 'pests...they should have been included in the Party's Lustration List earlier. Their statements on the situation in Crimea were the last straw for us.' Pro-government 'trolling office' in Olgino, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) Alexandra Garmazhapova Starikov supports the policies of President Vladimir Putin. He is Commercial Director of government-controlled TV Channel One in St Petersburg, the author of several books, regarded as academically controversial, and his views tend towards the conspiratorial. Some of his publications include ‘Who is financing Russia's collapse? From Decembrists to Mujahideen’, ‘Russia's principal enemy: all evil comes from the West’, ‘Rouble nationalisation: the way to Russia's freedom’, ‘Stalin: together we remember’ and ‘As Stalin said.’

‘Our demographic problems cannot be compared with those of European countries, where kids are becoming gender-neutral’

Nearly two years ago, activists of the movement Starikov founded, the Union of Russian Citizens, attempted to sue the singer Madonna for promoting homosexuality. In court the movement's Press Secretary Darya Dedova declared that ‘our demographic problems cannot in any way be compared with those of European countries, where kids are becoming gender-neutral – where boys are made to go to the toilet sitting, and girls standing.’

Among those trying to punish Madonna for her support of LGBT people in Russia was Mariana Yakovleva, one of the former leaders of the famous pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. After the scandal over the 2007 relocation of the Bronze Soldier in Estonia, she was refused entry to the European Union, causing her much distress because she so enjoyed travelling to Finland.

Internet Militia, Nashi…and others

According to information from Starikov's page on the Russian social network VKontakte (which counts over 122,500 subscribers), Yakovleva now co-ordinates Starikov's links with other groups.

Her work with Nashi probably means she is used to the internet, but Vladimir Putin's official youth organisation, did attempt to maintain at least a semblance of balance in public, without leaning fully towards the legacy of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire. Starikov's followers are much more radical and flamboyant.

Internet_Opolchenie crop.jpg

Among the groups with which the Starikov community has links is the ‘offshoot’ of the Great Fatherland Party, the Internet Militia. It has 20,000 members and was founded by Starikov in 2012 to do battle with ‘liberals, traitors, and perverts.' The Internet Militia works with groups such as The Crimean Front (listed as allies), ‘Berkut – Bulwark of our Country's Stability’ [Berkut, or Golden Eagle, was the name of the special police unit, notorious for its violence during the Kyiv Maidan protests, disbanded by the Kyiv government and now reinstated in Eastern Ukraine] and ‘Stalin – we remember Ttgether’ among others. One of the moderators of the Internet Militia is former liberal activist, cashier Svetlana Pavlushina, who describes, her earlier support for the opposition as pure naivety. Image from Internet Militia's VK page, showing a Soviet soldier with a St. George Ribbon. CC: vk.com/ipolkgenshtab‘In 2010 I still described myself as a so-called dissenter, ' says Pavlushina 'One could say that I was drawn into this by my naivety and my emotions. Then I encountered a very clever man who opened my eyes to so much that I could only admit that I had been wrong. Political pundit Anatoly Vasserman wrote an article, “What a fool I used to be”, where he publicly acknowledged the falsehood of his former liberal views. That's the same attitude I now have.

‘The Internet Militia is in essence a group of committed patriots taking the information war online’ explains Pavlushina

‘The Internet Militia is in essence a group of committed patriots taking the information war online’ explains Pavlushina ‘Yes, I support Starikov's position, and when possible take part in discussions, publicising important information, and votes so as to help form the right public opinion. People read, then draw their own conclusions.’

Starikov commented himself on Pavlushina's change in attitude, noting that ‘The general impression now is that the events in Crimea and Ukraine have helped our people to divest themselves of the last shreds of their illusions. And of liberalism. We're waiting for the autumn elections, when the electorate  tick their voting papers. The judgement will be on those who oppose the resurrection of a mighty Russia, and the reunification of a single people.’

Trolls are paid for their 'patriotism'

It's commonly said about the Internet Militia that they are ‘mistaken’ people, who glorify Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin ‘out of naivety’, but there can be little doubt about the views of employees in an office in the suburbs of St Petersburg.

In an office in suburban St Petersburg students are paid to decry the evils of the West online.

The basement of a townhouse in Olgino serves as an office where employees are paid to post anti-western comments on blogs and news articles. What they produce is very critical of the Russian opposition, in particular Aleksei Navalny, and the West

The Guardian has accused ‘pro-Kremlin activists’ of engaging in planned trolling. The British newspaper talks of an invasion of its website by spammers who leave a particular type of negative feedback on articles concerning the conflict in Ukraine. The publication draws attention to the poor level of English in comments favouring the separatists. A month ago users with very similar (poor) English attacked the website of the UK newspaper, the Independent, in which Vladimir Putin had won a poll on the question ‘Who is the best world leader today?’  The result was disseminated by pro-Kremlin media: Putin won with almost Crimean levels of support – 92% of the votes cast. Comments on the poll's webpage explained this British mass enthusiasm – they were all either in Russian, or in abysmal English.

The Guardian has accused ‘pro-Kremlin activists’ of engaging in planned trolling.

The surge in Russian comments began just after the poll was reported in Nikolai Starikov's official group. Following Starikov's call to support Putin, members of his VKontakte group were quick to report that they had voted for the President and that he could well even ‘triumph in the polls in Britain; Britain is with us.’ A link to the poll was also posted in ‘USA – sponsor of world terrorism’, a group with some 154,000 registered subscribers.

In short, identifying fake user accounts is most easily done by paying attention to their level of English;  in the case of Putin supporters this tends to be extremely poor.

The Commentators' and Social Media Specialists' departments at the office in Olgino. Photo (c) Alexandra Garmazhapova

These paid bloggers are united by a general hatred of the USA, in particular bad American films, as ‘Every American film shows an obscene picture of the population of that country and its obscene people.’ The Commentators' and Social Media Specialists' departments in Olgino. Photo (c) Alexandra Garmazhapova  Employees of the Internet Research Agency, an organisation with direct ties to Putin's friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the St Petersburg company Concord Catering and a string of restaurants in Moscow and St Petersburg, are equally outspoken. Americans are depicted as beleaguered and oppressed, just as they were in Soviet propaganda: they apparently walk around their houses in warm pjyamas and nightcaps, as the American government doesn't provide heating and demands unaffordable prices for electricity.

‘Every American film shows an obscene picture of the population of that country and its obscene people.’

But the Internet Research Agency has other links as well as Concord Catering. Kirill Skladovich, financial director of the Agency, is a former leader of the youth parliament of St Petersburg; one of the Agency directors, Aleksei Soskovets, keeps in close touch with Vladimir Putin, the St Petersburg City Administration and the Committee for Youth Policy. His company North-Western Services Agency won 17 tenders for providing services for the St Petersburg authorities. One of these was for the transportation of participants to the youth camp Seliger, which has always been considered a platform for the pro-Kremlin movement Nashi.

In discussion with a correspondent, Soskovets confirmed that employees working on the internet use the methods of Nashi. Furthermore, explained their working principle as follows: ‘We work like Yandex-Market, an immense online shop, which recommends where best to buy certain products. Under each item are comments saying, for example, which is the best telephone and which is the worst. Alas, the reality of life is that people don't always want to write the first few comments. First of all, we need to increase traffic to the site. That can be done with robots, but robots work mechanically, and sometimes a system of the Yandex type bans them. It was therefore decided to do this with real commenters, real people. Write a comment yourself, under our direction.’

Despite the fact that last summer, journalists infiltrated the ‘Internet-Trolls’ office posing as jobseekers, and described in detail the recipe for massaging pro-Kremlin opinion on the internet, the office to this day continues to function.

I went to Olgino in early April with a film crew from a St Petersburg television channel. Our group was turned back at the gates by the company's security guards, who maintained that the building was used for the sale of paints. They refused to reply to our question about what particular paints were sold and whether we could buy some. At the same time, a number of employees came out of the office, apparently for a ‘smoke break.' They just happened to be the very same students we had identified six months earlier.

Quite an easy way of increasing one's income to the tune of somewhere over 30,000 roubles (£500) a month!

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