Anonymous International last week uploaded hacked correspondence alleged to be between employees and their superiors at the Internet Research Agency, a secretive company based in the village of Olgino near St. Petersburg, which revealed its extensive pro-Kremlin activities on the Internet.
The correspondence showed that paid bloggers and commenters have been heavily used to infiltrate the Internet forums of Western media outlets and blogs, even posing as Westerners despite their writing hinting at their Russian background. It also showed increased activity during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.
The Western media has expressed concern about pro-Kremlin commentators. In April, The Guardian newspaper ran a commentary by its readers’ editor Chris Elliott, called “The readers’ editor on… pro-Russia trolling below the line on Ukraine stories,” where he said that Guardian moderators, who deal with 40,000 comments a day, believed there was an orchestrated, pro-Kremlin campaign going on in the newspaper’s comments section.
This kind of phenomenon has been well known and documented in Russia since 2005, when the Kremlin reacted to the victory of the then Maidan protests in Kiev against the flawed presidential election. Dubbed the Orange Revolution, it led to a revote and the defeat of the Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych. Back then, Vladislav Surkov, dubbed the Kremlin’s grey cardinal by Western media outlets, met with Russian rock musicians in an apparent questioning of their loyalty, a number pro-Kremlin youth movements such as Nashi were launched and extensive work on the Internet began. Groups of paid bloggers were created in order to flood the Internet with pro-Kremlin and anti-American comments as well as to harass the critics of President Vladimir Putin by posting hateful comments and offensive, and often pornographic, images.
However, in the last few years, these paid bloggers have moved on to the international media and blogs.
The thousands of letters recently posted by Anonymous International contained instructions on how to behave on foreign forums and social networks, and how to plan campaigns and indoctrinate Western readers. The correspondence also contained passport scans of the employees and CVs, with at least one of them being a Russian living in Germany. In addition, it showed that a number of employers were hired in April after the military conflict in Ukraine had started.
One letter contained a task of creating 50 fake accounts on Facebook for posting pro-Kremlin and anti-American comments.
According to the MR7.ru website, the Internet Research Agency employs 300 people who write 100 comments a day each, mostly in Russian but also in English and Ukrainian, resulting in 30,000 postings daily.