ОД "Русская версия": Investigation

Real fakes: how Kyrgyzstan’s troll factories work

In Kyrgyzstan, internet trolling has become not only a powerful political tool, but also a profitable business. Several trolls explain how the Central Asian state has become home to a well-equipped internet propaganda industry.

Kamila Eshaliyeva
17 November 2020
Image: AFP. Illustration: Inge Snip

Offering a service to politicians and prominent figures who want to manipulate public opinion, paid-for “troll factories” have become increasingly common on Kyrgyzstani social media. These troll factories run networks of fake accounts, using them to burnish their clients’ images and to denigrate opponents by flooding pages and websites with “likes” and comments.

Once easy to spot, these fake profiles have become more sophisticated over time, as troll factories have learned how to make them look authentic by filling them with content, and interacting with other users. It’s hard to find out who exactly the clients are, but Kyrgyzstani journalists have managed to identify fake accounts used to express support for the powerful Matraimov family, as well as ex-presidents Sooronbai Jeenbekov and Almazbek Atambayev.

A sign of the role these troll factories play in politics came this autumn. According to the news outlet Kaktus.media, a group of fake accounts that had previously acted in support of the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party, widely linked to the Matraimovs, had suddenly switched their allegiance to Sadyr Japarov, the nationalist politician who took over as interim leader in October, after post-election protests.

But who exactly works in a Kyrgyzstani troll factory, and what do they do? openDemocracy contacted eight people who run fake accounts for money, three of whom agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. The rest said that they did not want to lose their jobs and were generally afraid for their safety if they spoke out.

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An example of a fake account called "Talaigul Omuralieva". The profile photo and cover were uploaded on 22 October 2020. The photo was taken from Natalia Stroeva, a winner in the Vice Miss Russia 2018 competition. Publications on the page are missing . The user is an active member of the groups "Sadyr Japarov" and "Our President - Sadyr Japarov", where they publish or repost texts in support of Japarov several times a day, and also promotes his candidacy for the presidency.

A profession that doesn't exist

The only way to get a job with a Kyrgyzstan troll factory is to know someone who works there. Vacancies aren’t advertised. These businesses are mainly concentrated in Bishkek, the capital city, and are highly secretive.

“Arsen” worked as a troll in one of the Bishkek factories from 2019 until earlier this year. Like his colleagues, he didn’t know much about politics when he started, but he says it was good money and easy work.

“We worked in a small office in the eastern part of Bishkek. Our clients included well-known politicians as well as people with a bad reputation, and owners of large companies,” Arsen said. “We usually defended and supported these people on social networks. But there were also cases when we were asked to ‘wipe out’ our clients’ competitors. Several other guys worked with me. We were all under 25. We wrote comments almost around the clock: some of us were on duty during the day, and some at night.”

This troll factory focused on Facebook and Instagram, the most popular social networks in Kyrgyzstan. On rare occasions, they also left comments on Twitter, YouTube and other sites.

“There was one simple rule: the more comments and posts, the better,” Arsen says. “Which is what we did, because there wasn’t much else to do anyway.”

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Amid post-election chaos, Kyrgyz-language social media was increasingly flooded with support for nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov - and can help explain his unlikely rise to prime minister.

Arsen and his colleagues would use likes and reposts to get particular topics trending. In debates with opponents, they were allowed to use all means necessary, including obscene language and insults.

“Usually I would enter keywords in the search box – it could be our client’s name, or something else related to him,” he continues. “Then I found recent posts or links and would write more than ten comments from different accounts under a single post. So I was basically speaking to myself.” Arsen said they also left comments on the most prominent Kyrgyzstani news websites.

At Arsen’s company, each employee was given a standard kit: a pack of SIM cards and a work phone for registering accounts on social networks. According to Arsen, he could spend several weeks – months, even – creating a single fake profile. To make a profile look more believable, he would gradually add friends and post “original” content.

Profile photos were stolen from the pages of real people in other countries. The fakes didn’t always succeed, and Arsen’s profiles would constantly be reported by other social media users and suspended. But he kept creating new ones.

“It was a real flight of imagination when we had to write comments. We would distort information according to the customer’s wishes. We tried to write long and meaningful comments – they get more attention,” he adds.

“We didn’t have to believe what we wrote, but to come up with something new every time was incredibly difficult. So sometimes we posted the same comments via different profiles. We also made viral videos and memes, and then distributed them in groups. At the end of every working day, we sent reports to our boss about the work done: how many comments were written, how many posts were published, with links and screenshots.”

Officially, the company Arsen worked for was engaged in website development – for them, trolling was just another source of income. Web developers and trolls worked in the same office, and shared information between one another. But the trolls did not receive employment contracts, and their salaries were not taxed. Arsen doesn’t know how much clients paid in total for his company’s services.

“I received 200 dollars a month for one project,” Arsen says. “In good times, we could have two projects at the same time. For example, one customer could be a politician and the other a businessman. But our services were used for the longest by people associated with politics or high-profile scandals. Our longest project lasted around nine months. We defended a famous person who does not have a particularly good reputation.”

According to the National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, the average salary in the country is about 18,000 soms, or $214. At the same time, 47% of all unemployed people in the country are young people aged 20 to 30.

The troll factory where Arsen worked was not tied to a single customer. At times, he said, they would finish a contract, then another client would arrive to order a propaganda campaign against the previous one. Neither would know they were using the same service.

“Customers never contacted us directly. Everything was done through the boss,” Arsen says. “They found out about our services by word of mouth. Apparently, politicians would send one another to us. As for me, I tried not to reveal what I was doing. Only people close to me knew where I was working. This work would not help my reputation.”

According to Arsen, some of their clients used the services of several troll factories at once. He realised this when he noticed that dozens of fake accounts outside of his company’s control were spreading similar information.

Trolls at election time

As a rule, troll factories become especially active on the eve of major political events in Kyrgyzstan – and this year’s parliamentary election was no exception.

Two employees of troll factories told openDemocracy that certain political parties created entire troll divisions in order to promote their agenda on social media. Employees were given equipment and desks in campaign headquarters, or specially-rented offices and apartments during the campaign period.

“Alina” runs her own troll factory, which has been carrying out assignments for Kyrgyzstani politicians for several years. Officially, her company is engaged in social media marketing. Her team is made up of acquaintances and relatives, about 10 people in total.

During the October election, Alina’s team worked for one of the country’s major political parties. Their tasks included promoting the party’s ideas on social media, posting in support of candidates, monitoring news stories and discrediting the party’s rivals.

Alina’s team would share out responsibilities. Some worked on creating fake accounts, some wrote comments, and others worked on visual content.

“Each of us had around 200 accounts on different social networks and 50 common profiles as back-up,” Alina says. “We came up with a backstory for each of them, filled in their biographies, picked up photos, then flipped or photoshopped them.

“For guys, we usually put photos with cars or of an Islamic nature. For girls, we looked for photos of foreign women with an Asian appearance. Then you need to create profiles with a name and surname, plus a place of study or work, otherwise they could be blocked.”

As Alina put it, the main battlefields were the comment sections of well-known Kyrgyz news websites and the political parties’ official social media pages.

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In the aftermath of parliamentary elections, people took to the streets in Bishkek to protest the results | Source: Sher Channel / YouTube

According to Alina, when it comes to online arguments, it’s usually a case of trolls arguing with trolls, and a certain percentage of social media users no longer pay attention to their comments. However, the overwhelming majority of users continue to be influenced by fake accounts.

“There was no set number of comments and posts [that we had to reach], it’s a creative process,” Alina says. If the political party they worked for was criticised, Alina and her colleagues would get involved in heavy debates on the comment threads. “You had to reason, to give serious arguments. Sometimes you start and you can’t stop. You get into your role, like an actor in a theatre.”

According to Alina, during the pre-election campaign, several other troll factories worked for the same party as her team. Each group of trolls had leaders, or “curators”. They regularly briefed employees on what to write about and what to comment on.

“Many people think that clients take a package of services, but that’s not true,” she says. “They come to you and say: ‘tomorrow someone will leak some compromising material or telephone conversation, you need to work on this topic’. Or: ‘a story will be published and it needs to be spread everywhere’. Then you boost and leak material in prime time.”

“Sometimes you start and you can’t stop. You get into your role, like an actor in a theatre”

“Bermet” also worked as a troll for one of Kyrgyzstan’s leading political parties. Salaries differed according to experience: as a beginner, Bermet earned $180 a month.

“Our team consisted of 15 people, but we were just one part of a whole army,” Bermet says. “There were rumours that the party hired several more groups of trolls besides us. Our office was in an apartment in an elite building in Bishkek. The work began at 10am and ended at 6 or 7pm, but this was only at the beginning of the election campaign. Closer to the end of the campaign, there was a lot of work. Sometimes I had to write comments from home if I was given an assignment.”

Bermet and the rest of her team used Telegram to coordinate their work, and to discuss talking points or themes when it came to praising clients or targeting opponents. Team members who knew less about politics were given ready-made comments and texts to post, she says.

“When communicating with each other, we used two basic concepts – defence and attack,” Bermet says. “Defence means that you have to defend against [criticism] with positive comments. Attack was used when it was necessary to denigrate other parties and their candidates. We were sent photos and videos in advance, which we had to share online. We had to regularly make screenshots of all our posts and comments when reporting back.”

Bermet says that the main difficulties she faced were psychological, not technical. “During the elections, the online environment changed a lot, because no matter what social network I was on, trolls were fighting everywhere,” she says. “This war was fierce. If we wrote something positive about a party or a candidate, other fakes immediately tried to attack us.

“When I first started working, it was very difficult from a moral point of view. I did not feel comfortable with having to write things that were far from the truth so often. But we were told not to take it to heart, that it’s just a job.”

“A vaccine against fakes”

In Kyrgyzstan, the work of troll factories is not regulated, and there are no laws preventing their activities. But attempts have already been made to tighten control over online information.

In June 2020, Kyrgyzstan’s MPs approved a now-notorious draft law on disinformation, which was initiated by parliamentarian Gulshat Asylbayeva. According to the proposal, Kyrgyzstan’s culture ministry would gain the right to block internet sites without court approval, if it decided they had published false claims.

The bill prompted criticism from social media users, who argued that the new law could be used to restrict freedom of speech. As a result the then-president Sooronbai Jeenbekov sent the draft law back to parliament to be revised.

In the meantime, Kyrgyzstani journalists and activists are at the forefront of attempts to counter disinformation. Aidai Irgebayeva, an editor at news outlet Kloop.kg, told openDemocracy that her team maintains a database of fake accounts, which can be used to identify connections between trolls and expose them.

“Usually, fake accounts would appear and behave aggressively after anti-corruption investigations,” said Irgebayeva. “I started commenting beneath their posts that they were fakes, so that readers could identify them.” Before Irgebayeva and others intervened, she says, the majority of comments under a given article about a prominent politician or influential figure could have been left by fake accounts.

According to Bolot Temirov, editor-in-chief of the Factcheck.kg website, troll factories will remain popular until people learn how to analyse information themselves. So far, he says, fake accounts have been successful in directing the popular mood in Kyrgyzstan, by creating a distorted reality that many take to be real.

“How can you inflict the greatest damage on an enemy? By releasing false information about him and making him a monster in the eyes of other people,” Temirov says. “The trolls copied this style of manipulation from other countries. Creating the appearance of public opinion, trolls force their labels on people: this is white, this is black; this is an enemy, and this is a friend.

“We need to find a vaccine for this,” he says. “Our society must overcome the crisis and develop immunity against lies and manipulation.”

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