ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — While Russian officials scoff at a U.S. indictment charging 13 Russians with meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, several people who worked at the same St. Petersburg “troll factory” say they think the criminal charges are well-founded.
Marat Mindiyarov, a former commenter at the innocuously named Internet Research Agency, says the organization’s Facebook department hired people with excellent English skills to sway U.S. public opinion through an elaborate social media campaign.
His own experience at the agency makes him trust the U.S. indictment, Mindiyarov told The Associated Press. “I believe that that’s how it was and that it was them,” he said.
The federal indictment issued Friday names a businessman linked to President Vladimir Putin and a dozen other Russians. It alleges that Yevgeny Prigozhin — a wealthy restaurateur dubbed “Putin’s chef,” paid for the internet operation that created fictitious social media accounts and used them to spread tendentious messages.
The aim of the factory’s work was either to influence voters or to undermine their faith in the U.S. political system, the 37-page indictment states.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that while the indictment focuses on “Russian nationals,” it gives “no indication that the Russian government was involved in this in any way.” Peskov reasserted that Moscow did not interfere in the U.S. election.
Mindiyarov, who failed the language exam needed to get a job on the Facebook desk at the “troll factory,” said the sleek operation produced content that looked as if it were written by native English speakers.
“These were people with excellent language skills, interpreters, university graduates,” he said, “It’s very hard to tell it’s a foreigner writing because they master the language wonderfully.”
Another former worker at the St. Petersburg workshop, Lyudmila Savchuk, also described it as an efficient venture that churned out posts around the clock.
Like Mindiyarov, Savchuk was employed in the domestic department of the “troll farm,” not the international division. Nevertheless, she said her experience there corresponds with what she knows of the allegations made by American authorities.
“The posts and comments are made to form the opinion of Russian citizens regarding certain issues, and as we see it works for other countries, too,” Savchuk told the AP.
Paid trolls used carefully crafted fake identities that made them come across like real people, she said.
“The most important principle of the work is to have an account like a real person,” Savchuk said. “They create real characters, choosing a gender, a name, a place of living and an occupation. Therefore, it’s hard to tell that the account was made for the propaganda.”
Prigozhin, aka “Putin’s Chef,” owned restaurants and catering businesses that hosted the Russian leader’s dinners with foreign dignitaries. He used his relationship with Putin to expand his business to include services for the Russian military.
“I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list,” Prigozhin said of the indictment in comments carried by Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency. “If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
Along with producing social media supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy and disparaging Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Internet Research Agency purchased online advertisements using identities stolen from Americans and staged political rallies while posing as American political activists, the indictment alleges. The agency also paid people in the U.S. to promote or ridicule the candidates, the document states.
While the U.S. indictment mentioned 13 people, many more must have been involved in the effort, according to Savchuk. Russian media reports said the troll farm employed hundreds of bloggers and commentators working in shifts.
“Here they laugh about the news that 13 people could influence the elections in the U.S., but there were many more people doing that,” she said. “These technologies are unbelievably effective.”
She added that she learned how effective the troll farm’s work was when she saw regular people sharing opinions and information that she knew were planted by trolls.
“They believed it was their own thoughts, but I saw that those thoughts were formed by the propagandists,” she said.
Andrey Zakharov, an investigative journalist with Russian RBC outlet who co-reported an investigation of the troll factory, said the list of indicted Russians looked “quite random” to him.
“They simply included in it all the names they could find,” Zakharov told the AP. “According to our information, some of these people don’t work at the factory now and did not even work there during the (U.S.) elections. This does not look like a result of a solid investigation.”
Although the U.S. indictment is detailed, it makes assertions without providing evidence outright. Russian officials have seized on that, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who dismissed the charges as “just blabber.”
Mstyslav Chernov in St. Petersburg, and Iuliia Subbotovska, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.