Yle Kioski Traces the Origins of Russian Social Media Propaganda – Never-before-seen Material from the Troll Factory

We followed the operations of the secretive so called troll factory in Saint Petersburg on the spot for three days.
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Troll. TROLL. 

Everyone having discussions on the Internet knows the word. 

It means a person who annoys and provokes others participating in web discussions on purpose.

In Russia, this word of web slang has a new meaning:  a troll is an employee who is paid to post ingratiating comments in the social media about president Vladimir Putin anonymously and often aggressively.

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But what kind of a workplace employs people whose job is said to be to praise Putin’s Russia? Kioski investigated the background of the secret office building in Saint Petersburg that is called “the troll factory” and followed the life in it for three days.

A satellite image on Google Maps shows that the troll factory is a fairly large office building.​​
A satellite image on Google Maps shows that the troll factory is a fairly large office building.​​

THURSDAY 3.53 PM: WE CALL THE RECRUITER

According to the information revealed by hackers and journalists, the salaries of the employees of the Troll Factory are paid by “Internet Research Agency”, Agentstvo Internet Issledovanii, in Savushkin Street 55.

The company that is funded by Russian businessmen has not commented on the information. The connection of the troll factory with the Kremlin has not been proved but, then again, there is no proof about all the forms of information warfare, in general.

We studied the job advertisements of the Internet Research Agency. On 2 February, there were ten of them on a Russian job website. The company is not looking for “trolls” but, for example, “social media specialists”, “Internet operators”, “content managers”, and “copywriters” for day and night shifts.

The advertisements state that the company wants to recruit people who “can work on the Internet, produce web content to different types of audiences, and rewrite texts”. The monthly salary varies from about 400 euros for regular employees to approximately 660 euros for managers. The job is described as “steady” in the advertisements.

The Internet Research Centre is looking for a Content Manager whose tasks, according to the job advertisement, include writing and moderating news, info material, and analyses.​
The Internet Research Centre is looking for a Content Manager whose tasks, according to the job advertisement, include writing and moderating news, info material, and analyses.​

We called the recruiter at the Internet Research Agency and asked for more information about the jobs. The close-lipped woman answering our questions reveals that the copywriter and content manager mostly write about political topics in English.

We ask the person responsible for recruitment in the Internet Research Agency for more information.​​
We ask the person responsible for recruitment in the Internet Research Agency for more information.​​

THURSDAY EVENING 5 PM: WE CALL FORMER EMPLOYEES

We call a former employee of the troll factory, a young woman, and ask for an interview. She has acquired her information from email correspondence between the managers and employees of the troll factory revealed by hackers.

The woman tells us she quit her job a long time ago and refuses to give us an interview. Other former employees we were able to get on the phone either refuse to speak, or deny that they have any knowledge of the matter.

According to former employees who have spoken publicly, documents revealed by hackers, and journalists that have infiltrated into the troll factory, the troll factory employs as many as 250 people.

They distribute propaganda in blogs, discussion boards, on Facebook, VKontakte, Twitter, and comments sections of the media. One troll can produce as many as 50 to 100 messages a day and maintain several profiles in the social media. Often, they also comment on the comments they wrote themselves.

Examples of the topics a former employee of the troll factory said they brought up while working. Source: An article on the news website Fontanka.fi​
Examples of the topics a former employee of the troll factory said they brought up while working. Source: An article on the news website Fontanka.fi​

THURSDAY EVENING 6.01 PM: THE FIRST VISIT

We drive to Savushkin Street 55 to take photographs of the troll factory from the outside. There are no signs representing the companies operating in the building above the main entrance or anywhere else on the walls of the building. Nearly all windows are lit and the blinds are drawn. We can see a security guard in the entrance hall.

The troll factory is located in the north side of the city centre of Saint Petersburg. There are employees at work around the clock.​​
The troll factory is located in the north side of the city centre of Saint Petersburg. There are employees at work around the clock.​​

THURSDAY EVENING 8 PM: WE MEET AN UNDERCOVER JOURNALIST

We meet Alexandra Garmažapova, a journalist working for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She and a colleague went to work into the troll factory as employees in 2013 when it was located in another address in the Olgino area of Saint Petersburg, and she wrote an article about her experience.

In the troll factory, Alexandra was given the task to comment on various topics every day – for example, to defame Russian opposition politicians.

Journalist Alexandra Garmažapova took photographs in the troll factory in Olgino. The sign on the door says “social media department”.​​
Journalist Alexandra Garmažapova took photographs in the troll factory in Olgino. The sign on the door says “social media department”.​​

Watch Alexandra Garmažapova’s short account of the work in the troll factory:

Video 1 from Yle Kioski on Vimeo.

Alexandra Garmažapova, a journalist working for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, tells us in the video she was afraid of getting caught when she applied for a job in the Internet Research Agency. Alexandra worked there as an undercover journalist in 2013 when the Russian leadership was especially interested in the opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

FRIDAY AT NOON: WE MEET THE DIRECTOR OF THE NEWS AGENCY OPERATING IN THE BUILDING

We drive back to Savushkin Street 55 and investigate the other companies operating in the building and connected with spreading misleading information. One of the tenants is FAN, a company that calls itself a news agency.

The company administers several websites launched recently, for example, riafan.ru that conforms to the views of the Russian leadership when reporting news concerning Ukraine, and nahnews.com.ua, the Kharkov news agency that deceivingly appears to be Ukrainian but operates in Russia.

According to the information acquired by Kioski, people that have applied for jobs in the Internet Research Agency have actually been hired to work for Ria FAN.

We interviewed Yevgeny Zubarev, the Director of FAN in front of the offices. Zubarev denies the claim that there are trolls working in FAN. He blames the accusations on propaganda warfare and says the whole discussion about trolling has damaged the reputation of his agency.

Zubarev says he does not know why Internet Research Agency employees have been recruited by FAN and suspects the blame lies on the operations of the recruitment company.

We ask Zubarev if he could show us around in the offices of FAN. He refuses and says FAN is only one of the tenants in the building.

Watch Zubarev’s interview:

Video 2 from Yle Kioski on Vimeo.

Yevgeny Zubarev, the Director of the news agency FAN, says in the video that the people who accuse his news agency for trolling are lying. According to Zubarev, it’s all about business.

FRIDAY 1.53 PM: THE SECURITY GUARD: THIS IS A “GOVERNMENTAL BUILDING”

We move on to the front of the main entrance of the building and take photographs in the street. The security guard comes out of the building, tells us to stop taking photographs and says the building is “a governmental building”.

If this is in fact true, it is very interesting. In Russia, “governmental buildings” usually include the buildings of the Federal Security Service, military buildings, administrative buildings, and nuclear power plants, for example. The security in “governmental buildings” is especially rigorous. Finally, the security guard asks us to leave and threatens to call the police.

These photographs taken in Savushkin Street made the security guard of the troll factory angry.​​
These photographs taken in Savushkin Street made the security guard of the troll factory angry.​​
A view of Savushkin Street from the front of the troll factory.​​
A view of Savushkin Street from the front of the troll factory.​​

SATURDAY MORNING 8.45 AM: THE MORNING SHIFT STAFF ARRIVES AND THE NIGHT SHIFT STAFF LEAVES

We go back to the factory to see the change of shift on Saturday morning 8.45 to 9.15. 

According to the job advertisement, many shifts start at nine o’clock in the morning and end at nine o’clock in the evening.

Approximately 40 to 50 people enter the building for nine o’clock, and several night shift workers leave. Most of the employees are women and men in their twenties.

Watch general scenes of the change of shift:

Video 3 from Yle Kioski on Vimeo.

Video material about the change of shift. The security guard of the building approaches our journalist again. Journalist: “This does not abide well.”

We ask employees to tell us about their work but they all refuse. Some of them say they don’t have the right to say anything and they are not allowed to say anything.

Watch the discussions with employees:

Video 4: An employee who has just left the building says he works in a news agency but says he has no right to answer any questions. He asks us to present the questions to his supervisor.

Video 5: During the change of shift, we ask employees hanging around outside the building if they could tell us about their work. The employees say they have no right to speak.

Video 4 from Yle Kioski on Vimeo.

Video 5 from Yle Kioski on Vimeo.

This article starts the Kioski series of articles about pro-Russia trolling.

Text, photos and videos by Jessikka Aro and Mika Mäkeläinen

Finnish version of this article can be found here.

Kioski is a cross media product that operates in social media, web and television. Kioski is produced by YLE, Finnish Broadcasting Company.

Yle TV2 arkisin 19.30—20.00