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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: January 29, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Confessions of a Former Kremlin Troll
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A new report has come out on sobaka.ru about the infamous "Kremlin troll farm" located at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg.

Sobaka.ru (the name means "dog" in Russian) is a news and entertainment site in Russia's 14 largest cities.

A woman who worked inside what she called "a giant propaganda machine" has told her story on condition of anonymity, and explained why "you can't last long at at such a job," says sobaka.ru.

The troll farm is able to attract workers by advertising widely through head-hunting firms looking for "copy-writers" or "content managers." If they are trying to hide the nature of the work, it's a flimsy job as the pay -- 40,000-50,000 ($579 to $726) a month -- and the address (Metro stop Staraya Derevnya/Chernaya Rechka) are always the same in the ads and and have long been associated in St. Petersburg media coverage with President Vladimir Putin's "information war."

Little is mentioned about the job in the interview, as the theory is that for such high pay by Russian standards, most people won't ask too many questions.

The base pay for bloggers -- people who write in LiveJournal and social media -- and other "content managers" including "SEO specialists" or designers of patriotic "demotivator" posters, called "illustration" -- is 45,000 rubles ($653). Those at higher positions earn 55,000-60,000 ($797-$939).

To enter the building on Savushkina, you have to show your passport if you don't already have a pass. The managers collect a lot of information from you; your complete work history, even your parents' workplaces; then ask you to "rewrite" a piece of current news. Says the former worker:

"You get the impression that they hire anyone who can prove that they can write and speak Russia. Meanwhile, they don't reveal any information about where you've landed; 'a media holding company, several sites, you have to earn traffic, the pay is higher than average.'"

Each "troll farmer" is expected to work the hours from 9:00 to 5:30 pm and produce 20 news items, of which 70% are to be original items.

"There are a total of 12 sites in the holding, as I understand it, on various topics, but all of them deal with politics and Ukraine one way or another," says the woman.

The business card says "Federal News Agency" (FAN) but most of the traffic comes from a so-called "Kharkiv News Agency"  (ironically called nahnews.com.ua). Although the site feigns to be Ukrainian "all the news is made at Savushkina 55," says the source. There are several such "Ukrainian" sites including the best known one, "Anti-Maidan" which were started in July 2014. The site doesn't have outright fakes like some Russian propaganda sites, but it does hew to the Moscow line, calling the Russian-backed separatists fighting in Ukraine "militia."

The "farm" has something of a "Big Brother," says the ex-troll:

The first days you simply don't understand where you are, why you're rewriting this news and filling the site with it. You get the impression that it's some kind of social experiment or reality show, especially because in each open space, where there are about 20-30 employees seated, there are observation cameras.

There are never any editorial meetings or even ideological instruction; it is expected that workers know what to do, and guidance only comes at the level of the chief editors. The workers mainly seem to have come from provincial cities in Russia and they are often hipsters -- dread-locks or piercings are common. The workers are divided into three categories, says the former worker:

1) "They pay me and I could care less, I don't even know what goes on," many of these people have families, loans to pay, etc.
2) "Yes, I know this is a pro-Kremlin troll factory but the hell with the mental anguish -- they pay me and that's enough;
3) "I am waging an information war against the fascist junta!" -- the last category is fewest in number.

"Practically nothing is asked about your personal political beliefs when you are hired for the job," she says.

FAN occupies only one floor of the four-story building on 55 Savushkina St. -- the other floors have other "troll" operations who place aggressive comments on forums, for example; those working on the Ukraine sites "regard them with an irony verging nevertheless on a certain fear."

The bosses are only after one thing -- traffic, number of views and unique visitors per day, a number which is supposed to rise by 3,000 every day. The SEO department is engaged in crude spamming, which is why the sites are often blocked in Google and VKontakte.

The managers whip their site editors and they in turn pressure their workers to find breaking news and be the first to re-write it. There's a focus on murders, rapes and other police blotter stories and then show business gossip, features on the Russian pop singer Alla Pugacheva or Madonna in order to get traffic. Negative stories about gays are popular, as are those about feminism and the Ukrainian activists Femen, but the main news is "Putin, Crimea, and 'Novorossiya," says the author.

While the managers make reference to the need to attract clicks and get advertising revenue, in fact this only draws a smile because the operation is widely understood to be government subsidized.

Finally the soul-killing work took its toll, says the former paid troll:

The decision to leave the "troll preserve" was long in maturing. On the one hand, I realized that such non-manual labor with a decent salary for St. Petersburg would be hard to find under the conditions of the crisis; there was never a single day on Savushkina where I encountered any insurmountable difficulties actually of a technical nature. The issue was the psychological burden of this work. By December, I had a tic in my eye from nervous stress and I dreamed all night of writing and re-writing news about Putin and Ukraine. Moreover, I hew to liberal views; among my acquaintances are quite a few opposition-minded people, and at a certain point I realized that I was simply ashamed to say where I worked. All of those factors outweighed considerations of comfort and I resigned in relief.

See our past reports on the St. Petersburg troll farm:

The Kremlin's Growing Army of Trolls

Here Comes the Kremlin's Troll Army


-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick