Russian Trolls Used ‘Up To 100’ Activists To Organize Events In US, Report Finds

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
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Alan Yuhas contributed English-language translation

As many as 100 unwitting activists were recruited to help organize events in the United States both before and after the election by the same St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm behind scores of fake social media accounts that purchased ads to sow discord during the 2016 campaign.

The revelation comes from a report in the Russian business magazine RBC published on Tuesday morning.

The events included an October 2016 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest police violence mere weeks after a protester was fatally shot at a Black Lives Matter protest there. The organizers of the October protest were not with BLM, though, according to RBC’s report. They were with BlackMattersUS, the organization outed as a Russian front last week by Casey Michel at ThinkProgress.

The Charlotte rally was one of ten BlackMattersUS events catalogued by RBC journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov. The two reporters interviewed numerous former employees at the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, and reviewed chats on encrypted messaging app Telegram from senior personnel.

The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.

“Up to 100 American citizens helped to organize the events for the ‘Trolls factory,’ not knowing who’s really behind all these groups,” Zakharov told TPM.

A source familiar with the troll farm’s activities told RBC that it spent about $80,000 total—just $20,000 less than Facebook said was spent promoting divisive ads on its platform—on “paying for these local organizers’ work (flights, printing costs, technical equipment),” according to a translation of the report commissioned by TPM.

RBC found that the troll farm was carrying out dry runs for political protests in the U.S. as early as 2015. That spring, the organization used publicly accessible webcams in Times Square to see if people would follow instructions on Facebook to show up at a designated place and time for a free hot dog. They did, and didn’t even get a promised hot dog for their trouble.

FAN considered that show of hungry Facebook users a huge success, according to the translation of RBC’s report:

The action was meant to test the effectiveness of a hypothesis: can you remotely organize measures in American cities. “Simply a test of possibilities, an experiment. And it succeeded,” remembered one of the “factory” workers, not concealing their pleasure. From this day forward, almost a year and a half before the US presidential election, began the full work of the “trolls” in American communities.

In March 2015, on the web portal SuperJob, there appeared vacancies for “internet operators (night),” with a salary of 40-50 thousand roubles and a work schedule of 21pm to 9am, in the office on Primorsky district; job duties included writing materials “on designated themes” and “news information and analysis.” On the list of requirements for the position, “natural English,” “confident ownership” of written language, and creativity.

Russian reporter Alexey Kovalev told TPM last month that a troll he took to task for praising Putin in the comments of one of his articles made him a similar offer for work.

The RBC report also identified the head of FAN’s American division, Jayhoon (also spelled Dzheikhun) Aslanov, 27, who studied abroad in the U.S. in 2009 and graduated with a degree in economics from Russian State Hydrometeorological University in 2012. Three sources confirmed Aslanov’s role at the troll farm to RBC, including one who showed the reporters messages from Aslanov on Telegram; Aslanov himself denied it to the news outlet.

FAN’s American unit spent $2.3 million between June 2015 and August 2017 and employed 90 people at its peak, according to the report; it is still active and today employs 50 people. During the period RBC studied, the troll farm’s budget for promotion on social media was $5,000 a month, fully half of which was devoted to “posts touching on race issues.”

But Trump himself factored into that material far less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, RBC found. From the translated report:

A RBC analysis of hundreds of posts showed that Clinton figured in troll posts far more frequently than Trump.
“Share if you believe that Muslims did not do 9/11,” (United Muslims of America, 11 September 2016), “Clinton insists ‘We have not lost a single American in Libya’ Four coffins, covered in flags, were not empty, Hillary.” (Being Patriotic, in a post about Clinton’s relation to the tragedy, from 8 September 2016). In a statement, Facebook said that for the most part the blocked ads “range across the ideological spectrum,” touching on issues like LGBT rights, race, immigrants and firearms.

RBC’s investigation uncovered more than 100 community pages and associated accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms active through August 2017 that it believes were run by the troll farm. It confirmed those accounts’ authenticity using screenshots of posts and by consulting “a source close to the factory’s leadership.” The report estimates about 70 million people a week saw something posted by those accounts.

Zakharov told TPM that he believes there are accounts run by FAN with a total following around 1 million that remain active to this day.

This post has been updated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.
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