The job ads give little away. They ask only for “content managers” or “production editors” in a nondescript part of St Petersburg, and offer an above-average salary.
But for successful applicants, a thriving business offering rich opportunities for creativity and professional growth awaits. You can hone your writing skills subtly weaving patriotic sentiments into blog posts about beauty tips, fortune-telling, fishing or photography. You can revile the United States and Ukraine, posting news links and funny photo memes to local forums. If your English and political loyalty is flawless, you may even get the chance to insert angry comments on major western news sites.
If you’re really at the cutting edge, you can make viral videos about superheroes and breast implants, then drop in an insult about Barack Obama once in a while.
It’s all in a day’s work for a pro-Kremlin “troll”, a growth industry in an economy sliding towards recession, offering hundreds of young people up to £600 a month, with bonuses on top, and a two-days on, two-days off work schedule.
The inner workings of St Petersburg’s infamous “troll factory” have been exposed by Lyudmila Savchuk, a former employee, who was awarded symbolic damages of one rouble by a Russian court yesterday after suing her ex-boss for unfair dismissal.
Savchuk, a local activist who took a job at the factory for two months to expose the trolling operation, sued the company in charge, Internet Research, over back wages and the lack of employment documentation, forcing it out of the shadows and into court.
“I am very happy with this victory,” she said after the ruling. “I achieved my aim, which was to bring the internet trolls out of the shade. We have managed to prove that the trolls exist, which was the main goal.”
There have been claims that the company has since shut down, but Savchuk denied this. “They’re trying to confuse us, to say that the troll factory is no longer working, but I was there a few days ago. The same cars are there, the same people,” she said.
The centre of the internet trolling activity is 55 Savushkina Street, an unremarkable office building in a residential area of northern St Petersburg.
On a recent Monday morning, the Guardian counted 294 young people entering the premises between 7.30am and 10.45am, pausing only to finish their cigarettes, take out their earbud headphones, greet colleagues or stash their scooters, longboards and bicycles.
One of them was Oleg Vasilyev, a bald-headed man identified by two former trolls as a top boss.
Employees approached by a reporter either refused to talk or declined to say what kind of work they did. “We’re tired of answering these questions,” one woman said. Security guards soon came out and told the reporter to leave.
Savchuk’s revelations from inside the troll factory reveal a strict, secretive workplace where departments rarely interact and workers rush to fill their quotas of posts and comments. She worked 12-hour shifts in the blogging department, writing posts for the LiveJournal accounts of a fictional retired soldier, a Ukrainian man and a fortune-teller named Cantadora. Employees would all post through web proxies so that their location could not be traced.
This was not Soviet propaganda, harping constantly on one note. Instead, Savchuk and her fellows would insert occasional political rhetoric into a stream of banal posts to keep the blogs realistic, choosing these political topics from a list of five to seven news items about the US, Ukraine and Russia that their superiors gave them each day.
Cantadora posted mostly about weather predictions, magic and folk healing. But occasionally she would veer into politics. In one post she talked about consulting her crystal ball over a supposed friend in Ukraine who wanted to come to Russia. “The news from Ukraine is a constant stream of messages about how people’s fates are being ruined, how grief and death come with every new artillery volley and air attack,” she wrote. Luckily, the “higher powers” assured her that “Ukrainian refugees will find a new homeland, more gratifying and safe” in Russia.
Other departments in the four-storey building monitored the news and commented on news stories and posts on social media such as Facebook and the Russian social network VK.
Bloggers had to take a screenshot of their work and feed it into monitoring software. At the end of the day, employees would fill out a form tallying how many new friends they had, their current rating, how many comments they had written and how many comments were left on their posts. Disappointing results meant a demotion in the internal hierarchy, Savchuk said.
“The bloggers are supposedly the coolest. If they don’t meet the norms, they’re moved to social media comments, the lowest category of troll,” she said.
Along with the stick was the carrot. Those who put in extra effort, such as by writing posts on their days off days to increase blog readership, were praised by superiors and given a round of applause by colleagues. Departments would regularly put up examples of best and worst comments and posts on their walls and on an internal network, Savchuk said, adding that even she was “consumed by this game of raising your rating”.
“There were lots of bonuses for working weekends, for good quality texts, for getting your rating up, for the number of views on your blog,” she said. For her imaginative posts, Savchuk earned 8,000 roubles (£90) in bonuses in addition to her 33,000-rouble salary her first month, she said.
The bosses were wary of exposure, moving all correspondence to an internal messenger after a blogger leaked troll emails. When journalists began arriving at the office, the bosses told employees not to go outside when there was a media presence and instructed them to say they worked selling office supplies if approached by a reporter, Savchuk said.
On a recent weekday, security in the lobby of Savushkina 55 would not allow the Guardian to go upstairs. The only offices visible on the first floor were those of two online news portals called the Federal News Agency and Nevsky News. Although its director, Yevgeny Zubarev, told the Guardian that the Federal News Agency was “conservative” and politically driven in its Ukraine coverage, he insisted it was a “normal news agency” and was funded by a private investor, not the Kremlin.
The site recently covered an “Obama is a schmuck” rally held by the pro-Kremlin Politkach group of Alexei Mschov, whom the Guardian observed chatting outside Savushkina 55 before walking inside on a recent weekday morning.
Mschov told the Federal News Agency that Politkach was his initiative and was funded by “advertising”. Reached on VK, Mschov denied he worked at Savushkina 55. When told that he had been seen in front of the building, he responded: “In that case, I saw you at the office of Pain in the Ass magazine at 1 Smartass Square” then would not answer any more questions.
The “Obama is a schmuck” action was an example of how the troll factory is expanding beyond just comments and blogposts to create new kinds of pro-Kremlin content, according to Andrei Soshnikov, a journalist in St Petersburg who was among the first to report on the troll factory and has continued to investigate it.
“They’re winding down the stupid posting on LiveJournal because it’s the least effective approach and is expensive, and they’ve refocused on attracting talented people and doing creative projects with them that seem unpoliticised but can at one moment or another raise the political temperature,” Soshnikov said. “These groups have huge numbers of subscribers.”
Among these creative projects are a number of YouTube accounts linked to Alexander Ivanov, a 23-year-old vlogger with a passion for video games and superheroes. At least four photographs Ivanov posted to his Instagram account megapain700 have geotags showing they were taken at Savushkina 55. One shows Ivanov and videoblogger Kristina Fink in front of a green screen setup with the caption “#UnbelievableAdventuresOfMegapainAtWork”.
Fink’s videos are largely dedicated to anime, video games and fantasy and superhero movies. But sometimes they take a sudden political turn, such as a spoof video called Putin vs Shao Kahn showing the president against a rip-off of the main villain of the Mortal Kombat videogame series.
“The west’s attitude towards Russia changed significantly after Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] became president, they started to respect us, and that’s his main advantage over Shao Khan,” Fink says in the video. “His leadership is built on respect, not fear.”
In another video of a Spider-Man impersonator playing pranks on passersby, Fink removes the Spider-Man mask only to reveal an Obama hand puppet. “It’s you, plush Obama!” she says in horror, then begins punching the puppet.
Contacted on VK, Ivanov said he had worked at Savushkina 55 for a computer repair firm but denied producing videos there and said he had not heard of Internet Research. Soon after he deleted the green screen Instagram post and other posts showing him working on videos at Savushkina 55.
The Spider-Man video was deleted after the Guardian attempted to contact Fink on VK and by email, although a copy can still be viewed at another address.
While known troll blogs continue to publish posts and troll comments continue to appear on news sites, these tactics alienate internet-savvy Russians, who wonder why the Kremlin needs to go to such lengths to protect its image, Soshnikov argued. Projects like those of Ivanov and Mschov represent the next level of trolling, a more subtle way to push a pro-regime message among this group, he said.
This target audience includes not just those young people taking part in state-sponsored sports and defence training or patriotic youth groups, but also nerds who love western videogames and superheroes. In the battle for their minds, the Kremlin is apparently determined not to be left behind.
“For now they’re getting these to the top of the rankings, gaining an audience,” Soshnikov said. “And then at some point they’ll start the political stuff.”
By Alec Luhn in St Petersburg, The Guardian