Inside the Russian troll factory, zombie troops and a breakneck pace

The last known home of the Internet Research Agency at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg. Employees and associates of the Internet Research Agency are accused of trying to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

MOSCOW - At first, new recruits to the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian troll factory, were thrilled by the better-than-average salaries they earned simply for posting on the internet. But one says he eventually realised that the work hid a darker reality: Both they and their audience were meant to turn into zombies.

"They were just giving me money for writing," said the former troll, a St. Petersburg resident who wanted to get into marketing or journalism but was drawn by the hard-to-match US$1,400 (S$1,800) weekly paycheque.

"I was much younger and did not think about the moral side. I simply wrote because I loved writing. I was not trying to change the world."

Last Friday (Feb 16), the US Department of Justice accused the Internet Research Agency and its senior employees of working illegally to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election, indicting 13 Russians and the companies linked to it.

In recent interviews conducted before the indictments, two former trolls spoke about their experiences. Neither man wanted his full name used, citing the threats and intimidation others have been subjected to for speaking out.

Both left the agency for different reasons - one troubled by the substance of the work, the other struggling with the breakneck pace to create fake content.

Alexei, the troll from St. Petersburg, said he was among the first 25 employees hired. To get the job, he said, he had to write an essay on the "Dulles Doctrine," a Soviet-era conspiracy theory that may seem obscure to Westerners but is well known to Russians.

That was a significant clue about what was to come. The Dulles Doctrine - born in a 1971 novel, and gaining new life after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 - was a supposed plot by Allen Dulles, the CIA director from 1953 to 1961, to destroy the Soviet Union by corrupting its moral values and cultural heritage.

That, as the West has learned in the last couple of years, is precisely what the Kremlin and the troll factory set out to do to the United States, undermining faith in its electoral system by encouraging or even establishing groups that would sow domestic discord. Troll factory tactics included applauding Mr Donald Trump's candidacy while trying to undermine Mrs Hillary Clinton's.

As the factory got going, Alexei said, the first task assigned to all new employees was to create three identities on Live Journal, a popular blogging platform. One was to be of very high quality in writing and content, the other two "marginal." They worked in 12-hour shifts, either day or night, and the assigned topics popped up in their email: Russian President Vladimir Putin, or US President Barack Obama, or often the two together; Ukraine; the heroism of Russia's Defence Ministry; the war in Syria; Russian opposition figures; the US role in spreading the Ebola virus.

The key words and subject line were always assigned. At the time, the removal of chemical weapons from Syria negotiated under Russian auspices was a favourite topic. Alexei recalled writing seven or eight blog posts about it.

"You had to write that 30 per cent of the weapons had been removed, and the next day we would say that 32 per cent had been taken out," he said, adding that he had no idea if any had been removed.

Alexei wrote for the Russian-speaking audience. The English-speaking trolls were kept apart, he said, but from their loud conversations in the communal smoking room, it seemed like they were engaged in similar work.

The English speakers discussed the best time to post commentary to attract an American audience, he remembered, and bragged about creating thousands of fake social media accounts.

Alexei was interviewed before the indictments were handed up, and he cut off contact within days of the interview.

He had said that he did not know much about the company management and that he had never seen Mr Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the man the United States accused of creating the agency and nicknamed "Putin's cook" because he got his start in the restaurant and catering business.

The former troll did identify Dzheykhun N.O. Aslanov - called "Jay" around the firm - as the head of the trolls running the coverage of the US elections, an assertion that Mr Aslanov has denied.

Alexei said that two departments generated articles and tweets in English. On the Russian side of things, he said, the main thread running through the blog posts and the commentary was that "life was good" in Russia "under Putin and it was bad in the US under Obama." On domestic issues, opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny was a favourite target. The Russian annexation of Crimea was always presented as a historical achievement for Mr Putin that opened new horizons for Russia.

"If things were not great before, now we would start living really well," was the general theme, he said.

Once a blog post was created, the troll exclaimed, "Then the magic began!"

The computers were designed to forward the post to the agency's countless fake accounts, opening and closing the post to create huge numbers of fake page views.

After the initial excitement of his new job wore off, Alexei began to realise that much of the commentary was garbage, with the same themes repeated endlessly. "It was like turning people into zombies by repeating: 'Everything is good, everything is good. Putin is good, Putin is good,'" he said.

In his nearly two years, the staff around him had mushroomed from a few dozen to over 1,000, but by the middle of 2015 he had decided to leave.

The work began to trouble him. "If I went first because they paid a lot of money for nothing, when I left I started to understand what I was doing and it was bad," he said.

Not everyone had the same reaction, he noted. Some seemed brainwashed by the material. "They became cheerleaders for the regime," he said.

Sergei, 30, now a furniture salesman, was one of those.

With only a high school education, he was thrilled to discover that he could earn good money - he said he was actually handed cash in an envelope for part of his weekly salary - without much effort.

"I was 25 years old and knew nothing about politics," said Sergei, who arranged for a rendezvous in a St. Petersburg food court so that he could confirm from afar that the meeting was with a foreign journalist.

Working in a room with about 40 other people, he received a stream of blog posts by other agency writers. His job was to add comments and to share the posts on other social media platforms. He said everyone had a quota of at least 80 comments and 20 shares a day.

"The main idea was to work on people's thinking, to raise patriotism among the Russian people and to portray the US negatively," Mr Sergei said.

The comments were supposed to be original, something he struggled with, particularly as the articles all began to sound identical even if written by different authors. He had a hard time fulfilling his quota, he said. Hired in October 2013, he left in March 2014, he said.

The job changed him.

"Of course I became more patriotic," he said. He realised, he said, just how much Russia had to struggle against foreign powers, mostly the United States, who sought to control its natural resources.

From the blog posts, Sergei said he learned that just a few families like the Rockefellers, the Morgans and the Rothschilds controlled much of the wealth in the United States, and that their banks charged rapacious interest rates.

"I began to be more aware of the reasons for the world's problems," he said. "I now believe that the world evil is the top elite who control the Federal Reserve system in the United States."

Reached by telephone after the indictments were announced, Sergei said he had not heard about them.

Alexei said that ultimately, the managers demanded that the trolls do more and more by rote, even as the audience seemed to grow more jaded and paid less attention to what they wrote.

"If there was some creativity at the beginning," he said, "by the end that creative part was gone and we were all like robots."

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