Paid as a Pro-Kremlin Troll: 'The Hatred Spills over into the Real World'
Lyudmila Savchuk recently went public about her experiences working for a Russian Internet propaganda factory in St. Petersburg. In an interview, she describes how clandestine workers are promoting the Kremlin's message.
Lyudmila Savchuk speaks quickly. She also uses two phones at the same time -- they've been ringing nonstop since a news agency ran a feature about Savchuk and her experiences working as a professional Kremlin Internet troll. Savchuk, who hails from St. Petersburg, says she wants to set the record straight: She isn't simply a former employee at a St. Petersburg "troll factory," she is a journalist who deliberately infiltrated it to expose the business of paying people to post pro-Kremlin online comments.
To do so, Savchuk says she joined forces with other activists in a group called InfoPeace. Savchuk now wants to take her former employer to court so that the truth about the Kremlin's troll houses and the people behind them will come to light.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You worked in a so-called "Troll Factory" in St. Petersburg, where you were paid to post comments supporting the Kremlin line. How did you get inside?
Savchuk: I decided last October to research this structure from within. I spoke with a few friends about it, activists. I also got counsel from lawyers on my actions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?
Savchuk: Because you have to sign a few declarations of commitment as well as a confidentiality agreement. You're not allowed to talk about the work, especially not to the press. An atmosphere of utmost secrecy is deliberately created, which I found to be laughable from the very beginning. In truth, these papers have no legal validity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What platforms are the St. Petersburg trolls using?
Savchuk: I have personally seen the following: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Livejournal.com as well as the Russian networks VK.com and Odnoklassniki. The targets also include the discussion areas on all major news sites and the forums of the websites of cities in the Russian provinces. A colleague of mine posted primarily in forums in Saratov and Engels, two cities along the Volga River. I worked on Livejournal blogs, which are very popular in Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the work just done in Russia-language forums, or are there employees who write in English or German?
Savchuk: Most work in Russian, but I know that some also write English posts. Ukrainian also plays a major role. I also heard about German, but not in this building.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have evidence that other troll houses exist?
Savchuk: Yes. The branch office in St. Petersburg is simply the one that has been best researched. A few colleagues reported about work trips to a Moscow office. There is also information about a further, highly secretive building in St. Petersburg.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How is the work organized?
Savchuk: There are departments. Mine is responsible solely for Livejournal blogs and others are for commenting on the media. There's also a group that masquerades as journalists. They operate fake news portals that pretend to be Ukrainian news sites, with names like "Kharkiv News" or the "Federal News Agency." We had video bloggers. Some made themselves look like members of the Russian opposition.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who do they sign their work contracts with?
Savchuk: They don't even sign any contracts, which is why I am now submitting a lawsuit in a St. Petersburg court. That's the only way of dragging these fiends into the public eye. We want to show the world who is behind these troll factories.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If there are no contracts, then how are salaries paid?
Savchuk: Under the table, with cash. They don't pay any taxes or make any pension contributions. But it is good money: 50,000 rubles a month, or about 800. But nobody knows exactly where the money comes from. As a concerned citizen, what upsets me is that there is no money in Russia for important social projects right now, but there is for this nonsense, for hundreds of trolls.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who's behind this?
Savchuk: I never saw the bosses, but there are suspicions. It allegedly involves entrepreneur Yevgeniy Prigoshin. He has never discussed the allegations. Our goal is for the judges to invite him so that he is finally forced to admit it. Will we succeed with that? I don't know.
Yevgeniy Prigoshin operates restaurants and a catering business in St. Petersburg. He reportedly knows President Vladimir Putin well. Progoshin's wealth is also the product of lucrative government contracts. The Russian edition of Forbes reported in 2013 that Prigoshin had been awarded a 2 billion contract to provide prepared meals for schools and the army. Putin himself attended the opening of Prigoshin's factory. Prigoshin's name has popped up in various reports about Internet propagandists, including in the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So who are the trolls?
Savchuk: Students. At 34, I was the exception. The worse thing is that these young people are totally indifferent about what they are writing. I believe that the crime of extremism is actually being committed in the these troll factories.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How?
Savchuk : Because they are wishing for the deaths of Ukrainians and Americans. Hatred between nationalities is being incited. These people are writing one thing today, another thing tomorrow and perhaps the next morning they will put masks on in real life and go out on the street and kill someone.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who issues operative instructions to you?
Savchuk : It was different in every department. For us, they were written, via the intranet, and they were called "technical tasks." Those who were supposed to comment on media articles were given verbal communication about what they were supposed to write. One example of a key assertion that was to be disseminated was that Boris Nemzov was himself responsible for his death.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does a day inside the troll factory look like?
Savchuk: Usually, it is a 12-hour work day, but the departments start at different times. There's a night shift. The video bloggers only come in to record their posts. There is a small café where you can eat. But people don't have much time for breaks because they have to fill their quotas.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of tasks did you have to do?
Savchuk : One time we were supposed to write about how terrible things are in the European Union. Another time we were supposed to praise Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. You sit there and write things like: Yesterday I went for a walk and the idea came to me about how bad the situation is in Europe.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What identities do the trolls assume?
Savchuk : Usually as normal people, but sometimes they pose as members of the opposition. In our department, and this was pretty bizarre, we had a blog by an alleged fortune teller.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you afraid?
Savchuk : For a long time, I doubted whether I should come forward with my real name. For a long time, I feared dark underpasses, but I have since gotten used to them. There haven't been any threats.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have the impression that these trolls are actually having any effect?
Savchuk : Absolutely. The aggressiveness and the hatred spills over into the real world.
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