Western publishing houses faced a new phenomenon lately. Commentary sections on the webpages of the mentioned online print houses and Facebook were flooded by many negative comments. These comments were aimed against one or another newspaper/article or against some journalists to blame them in lies, propaganda, and warmongering, writing under the influence of the US State Department or at least in publishing one-sided reports.
This phenomenon did not stay unnoticed for a long time. The article below was written by Julian Hans, a journalist who is writing for the serious German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung“ from Moscow.
“US-Democracy = Death“: manipulators try to influence the world public’s opinion in social-networks and in commentary sections, as well as on Süddeutsche.de, in the interests of the Kremlin. The strategy papers, leaked by hackers, prove this.
Attention dear parents, Harry Potter makes gay! A video, published by a user with a pseudonym “The American Dream” on YouTube, brings the supposed evidence: First, you can see the actor Daniel Radcliffe as the Sorcerer´s Apprentice Harry succeeding adventures; that is how he had become a role model for millions of boys, they say. Afterwards one can see the same actor Radcliffe lying naked in bed with another young man – this is a scene from the film “Kill Your Darlings” about the Beat Generation, released in cinemas in 2013. The parents should not wonder, if they catch their beloved son together with a boy: “They just imitate Harry” is the explanation from the video and the conclusion looks like that: The Hollywood of present day shows us how our children will live tomorrow “.
What looks like the work of one of the many confused people, that secrete many terabytes of nonsense on the internet daily, is in truth carefully planned, calculated and placed strategically. The user with the intentionally misleading name “The American Dream” was created by Russian PR specialists of the “Agency for the analysis of the Internet”. The company located in St. Petersburg has employed up to 600 people lately. Its main task: to manipulate opinions on the Internet for the purposes of the Kremlin. Approximately one million U.S. dollars they could afford to spend every month recently. The internal documents and e-mails from senior staff member of the agency, which were leaked by a group of anonymous informants on the Internet, prove this.
Detailed descriptions: which echo the provoking comments make
More then 138 Megabyte of Data, Süddeutsche was able to analyze. For the first time a comprehensive picture was given, of how crowds consisting of paid manipulators act, to dominate the opinion in the commentary areas of large news portals, to disturb debates in social networks and to decompose the communities of the opposite side. Under cover of anonymity, these so-called trolls are hardly distinguishable from ordinary debaters and easy provocateurs.
The picture coincides with the reports of the Russian opposition newspaper “Nowaya Gazeta”, which were already published back in 2012. One reporter has slipped in the nest of trolls in St. Petersburg suburb Olgino, as a staff member. There she saw how PR professionals took up the struggle with critics of the Kremlin in the Russian-speaking Internet, by writing discrediting blog entries about the opposition, tinkering defamatory collages and trying to place this through mass Posts in the trends of the most discussed topics on Twitter.
By now there is a first evidence that the manipulators have also targeted audience of news portals and social networks beyond the Russian language area. Suspects exist no later, since editors were faced in the course of the Ukraine crisis with a flood of comments –all on the line of the Kremlin – considering the Maidan protests as the work of American intelligence agencies and reviling the government in Kyiv as a Nazi junta.
There are no doubts that there are people in the West representing this opinion. However, including all reputable poll results, they are in the minority: according to Allen Bach Institute, only eight percent of Germans confess had “a good opinion of Putin” (which roughly corresponds to the result of the Left-Wing (Socialist) Party in the recent federal election. According to Emnid, 70 percent have no sympathy for the Russian president. Infra dimap determined that two thirds of Germans are in favor of economic aid for Kyiv and almost as many people find political pressure from the USA and the EU on Moscow useful. The comment flood, whether on Süddeutsche.de or at ARD (German national Television), gives the impression that you stand alone with your opinion, when you condemn the annexation of the Crimea as such a noticeable disproportion
“Obama will burn in hell”
How PR professionals are able to encourage this impression, was certainly leaked from the internal strategy papers Petersburg Agency. These include in-depth analysis of the social networks Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. The age distribution of users is also under scrutiny, same as the time of day in which the activity is highest, and the political attitude of the audience. So the support of the US-Democrats was especially high among Twitter users and in the networking platform LinkedIn it was the lowest one.
The Troll analysts count support groups for Barack Obama on Facebook and Twitter and explain in detail what rules for comments on news portals Politico, Huffington Post or Fox News will apply. Should comments be published immediately or should they be tested previously? Are swear words being tolerated or does someone delete such comments? About the site theblaze.com is noted that even offensive comments will be tolerated, like for example the sentence, the determinations of African Americans were, “Rap and Basketball and not a governing”. On Facebook and Twitter there is no censorship, as somebody can wrote there that “Obama would burn in hell and Satan will rape his wife” because of his policy towards Ukraine.
In one table the strategists list political views, which the American news sites represent and how do they report on Russian foreign policy. In another paper they submit, which echo is being triggered by provoking comments on different portals and degree of sharpness in the tone succeeds most. The authors draw conclusions from their analyzes, how to proceed most effective. So it is advisable to create “up to 100 profiles “in the Huffington Post and maintain them, since there those comments are displayed at the top positions, whose authors have the most contacts.
A Paper provides talking points for the Russian audience like this: “Europe is in a serious crisis. Compare this to our country. We have no debts. There is a serious threat of a new crisis. Think twice, if a team should be changed in such situation, which has already shown its effectiveness!” One can also find the concept of the Facebook-Group with a title “The American Dream” within the data: In the first phase positive articles about the American dream should be posted there, only to become more critical over time.
“US-Democracy = Death”
The Harry Potter Video on the same YouTube channel used to have only moderate success – over 700 views in three weeks. The clip from the previous week however was much more successful: More than 35,000 users have viewed the clip “U.S. Democracy-Building in Ukraine”. It begins with the phrase, democracy is the most important commodity in the United States, claiming that Washington had five billion dollars spent to bring in Ukraine fascists to power, culminating after showing dramatic pictures with injured and killed civilians in the equation: “U.S. Democracy = Death”.
Who gives orders for these campaigns? The trails in the internal documents from the Internet manipulators lead to the Petersburg entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigoschin, who was nicknamed “Putin’s cook” in the opposition press. The two know each other from the nineties, as Prigoschin led the casino “Conti” in Saint Petersburg and Putin was responsible for the monitoring of gambling in the city administration. Meanwhile, the massive Baldy has built a gastronomic empire, last but not least because of some major orders from the state. In addition to various restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow, his Concord group contests the catering at official events such as the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and supplying schools and the armed forces with ready meals.
Prigoschin is not being conspicuous for the first time, while taking care beyond the culinary welfare of the Kremlin. In 2012 he has promoted the production of the movie “Anatomy of protest”, which represented the leaders of the mass protests against the rigged elections, as being conspirators paid off by Georgia and the United States – a template for a series of lawsuits against Kremlin critics, which are partially continuing today. As several people were detected during the last year, who had slept into newsrooms of critical media to spy on them, it was announced that Prigoschin stands behind the action. One of the spies is now working in a leading position with the trolls in Olgino according to the internal correspondence.
Payment based on performance
From the intercepted e-mails one can read that the “Agency for the analysis of the Internet” sent its monthly bills to Prigoschins company Concord. In addition, progress reports were sent to a man who appears in the documents only with his surname Volodin. According to the anonymous informants it is Vyacheslav Volodin, a deputy head of Putin’s presidential administration. That seems so far to be conclusive, since Volodin is considered to be the man in the Kremlin, who takes care of the control of the Internet. He was brought to the Kremlin in December 2011 at the height of the protests against rigged elections to handle the underrated phenomenon.
The company Concord refuses any comment on the allegations on the basis that the data had come illegally to the public. However there is little doubt about the authenticity of the material. The group, which, as it is common among hackers calls themselves “Anonymous International”, has brought again and again explosive documents since last December to the public. The leaked documents turned out to be authentic every time. This began with the New Year’s speech by President Vladimir Putin, whose text was published in the blog of the hackers, before the television sent it. Confidential details on the preparation of the referendum in the Crimea by Moscow PR experts and political strategists have also been published as the e-mail traffic of Igor Girkin. Girkin is an ex-employee of the Russian secret service. Today he is the military leader of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk in Ukraine, using the pseudonym Igor Strelkov.
The “executive troll” confirms that the material is authentic
It is noticeable while analyzing the publications, that Anonymous get their material not only out of hacked mail accounts, but apparently also have informants within the power circle. Again and again, there are documents that appear to have been photographed in the cabinets of the Kremlin administration. Russian media speculate, therefore, whether a power struggle in the Kremlin stands behind the publications, which opponents of Vyacheslav Wolodin could run. Or are there some unhappy within the secret service, because some of unique original functions of the Authority as the manipulation of public opinion were left to some private PR firms.
One director of the “Agency for the analysis of the Internet”, meanwhile, has decided himself for a forward flight. Mikhail Burtschik confirmed the Süddeutsche Zeitung via telephone, the authenticity of the material. But he did not want to comment further on the activities of the Agency. In his blog Burtschik is now called the “executive Troll” and stated that there is nothing wrong in what he is doing at his job, journalists are being paid for writing as well. Some patriots are even proud of it, to be called as “Trolls from Olgino”: “Better to be a troll and to love his homeland, then to blame anonymous on the government,” writes Burtschik. Yet he forgets, however, that the paid commentators even always occur anonymous and their identity was only revealed by the hackers.
The West does not have an answer
Paid commentators could be mobilized relatively fast due ads in online job boards, says a senior employee of a public relations firm in Moscow to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The woman also gets orders from government agencies. That is the reason why she does not want her name or her company being published. Comments in foreign languages are for their paid commentators no problem, she says. “The language training at our universities is good, this comments do not stand out,” she says. The trolls get their payment based on their performance: Each blog entry or comment is photographed, then comes the ruble.
The fact that Russia supports its Ukraine-policy with propaganda in social media, does not surprise the political advisor Simon Anholt. The British specialist is invited by governments worldwide as an expert when it comes to the image of states. He regularly receive invitations from Russia, he says. Scientists deal there intensively with how public opinion can be manipulated. According to a report in the newspaper Kommersant, the Kremlin has just announced research projects with a volume equivalent to one million euros, which serve to clarify, among other things, such as the possibilities to restrict the right to vote in other countries, such as social networks influence on public opinion and how one can control the Internet better. Anholt says it is a mistake to think, that the Internet automatically leads as a freelance communications space for more freedom: “Because it is free, it is just not immune to manipulations. Social media can be hacked and manipulated. And the West has no answer.” Censorship may eventually be no solution.
The most effective option against trolls, as analysts from Olgino have meanwhile documented for themselves: a paper entitled “Negative Comments” points out that all too clear contributions can lead to defensive reactions in the public. “In addition, users suspect that these comments have been posted for ideological reasons or for a fee,” it says. As an example, a discussion on the portal of the U.S. news channel CNN is given. On a tirade against the “paid by the West puppet regime in Kyiv” a user responds: “How is the weather in Moscow tonight?” Another one writes: “I am a Russian like you. But I’m a free man, and you are a paid KGB troll.”
By Julian Hans, www.sueddeutsche.de.