They are the online army of pro-Kremlin commentators familiar to anyone who dares read below the line on web articles about Russia.
Now one former foot soldier has broken ranks to expose the Orwellian ‘troll factories’ where state-sponsored employees work 12-hour shifts posting pro-Putin propaganda on news and social media websites.
St Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard lifted the lid on the 24/7 life in an unassuming four-storey modern building he compared to the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984. Hundreds of workers are paid above-average salaries of around £500 a month and required to write at least 135 comments per day - or face immediate dismissal. The repressive system’s strict rules and regulations include no laughing and fines for being a minute late. Friendship is frowned upon.
Asked if he agreed it sounded like something from Orwell’s dystopian classic novel Mr Burkhard said: “Yes, that’s right, the Ministry of Truth. You work in the Ministry of Truth, which is the Ministry of Lies, and everyone kind of believes in this truth. Yes, you’re right, it’s Orwell.”
The structure is simple. Once a story has been published on a local news forum the troll army goes to work by dividing into teams of three: one plays the ‘villain’ criticising the authorities with the other two debate with him and support government officials. One of the pro-Kremlin pair needs to provide a graphic or image that fits in the context and the other posts a link to some content that supports his argument.
“You see? Villain, picture, link,” Mr Burkhard told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “So in this way our little threesome traverses the country, stopping at every forum, starting with Kaliningrad and ending in Vladivostok. We create the illusion of actual activity on these forums. We write something, we answer each other. There are keywords, tags, that are needed for search engines. We’re given five keywords – for example ‘defence minister’ or ‘Russian army’. All three of us have to make sure these keywords appear all over the place in our comments”.
The funniest assignment he was given involved President Barack Obama chewing gum in India and spitting it out.
“[I was told] ‘You need to write 135 comments about this, and don’t be shy about how you express yourself. Write whatever you want, just stick the word Obama in there a lot and then cover it over with profanities’.
“In the assignment, there’s always a conclusion you’ve got to make that Obama doesn’t know anything about culture. You stick him in ancient India and he chews gum there. It’s funny in the sense that they’re ready to grab onto any little thing. On the other hand, it’s not funny. It’s absurd and it crosses a line.”
There are teams dedicated to Facebook and other social media. “There are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments. They write and write all day, and it’s no laughing matter -- you can get fired for laughing. And so every day, any news does the trick -- it could be Obama, could be [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, could be Greece, North Korea.
“Even a political scientist can’t be an expert about the entire world, but here people are expected to write about everything. And how you write doesn’t matter; you can praise or scold. You just have put those keywords in.”
Staff are forbidden from leaving the building during their 12-hour day or night shifts which they work two days on two off. After two months Mr Burkhard had had enough.
“I decided I can’t engage in absurd work. It’s all absurd. I don’t share this ideology, I'm absolutely against it. I was located in the enemy camp. To keep on working made no sense, even for money, because it’s such hard work that -- just forget it, forget the money. Just don't make me go there anymore.”
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