In Depth

Russia's troll army: how the propaganda factory operates

Journalist posing as a pro-Kremlin employee wins case against shadowy agency known as Internet Research

An undercover journalist and activist has won symbolic damages against a secretive Russian agency after infiltrating the organisation and exposing the inner workings of the "propaganda factory".

Lyudmila Savchuk sued the pro-Kremlin Internet Research Agency for breaching labour laws after she was unmasked as a reporter and fired by the company.

"I am very happy with this victory," the 34-year old told the AFP news agency outside the courts in St Petersburg. "I achieved my aim, which was to bring the internet trolls out of the shade."

As the propaganda war between Russia and the West intensifies over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, a shadowy army of internet trolls is working on the front line. So what exactly do they do?

How they operate

Employees are paid an above-average monthly salary to work 12-hour shifts praising the Russian government and attacking those perceived to be its enemies on social media, blogs and internet forums. Stationed in a nondescript building in St Petersburg protected by security guards, they are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, meet strict targets and are closely monitored by bosses.

What they are expected to write

US President Barack Obama and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko are obvious targets, as well as local opposition activists and Kremlin critics like blogger Alexei Navalny and feminist punk group Pussy Riot.  "We had to say Putin was a fine fellow and a great figure, that Russia's opponents were bad and Obama was an idiot," Savchuk told the Daily Telegraph.

Websites were also set up to help the troll army add colour to their posts, says The Guardian. Thousands of images were made available – "mainly of European leaders in humiliating photoshopped incidents or with captions pointing out their weakness and stupidity, or showing Putin making hilarious wisecracks and winning the day," Tom Parfitt reports.

Last year, moderators at the newspaper said they believed an orchestrated pro-Kremlin campaign was being carried out in its online comment section.

Is the agency connected to the government?

Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, claims the Kremlin had no knowledge of the agency. "To be honest, we don't know what this agency is, and there was never any cooperation with it," he said last month. "We couldn't have cooperated with it because we don't know what this agency is, what it does and whether it exists."

But Andrei Soshnikov, a Russian journalist who also infiltrated the organisation, told the Telegraph that some level of government involvement was certain. "This is such an industry that I can't believe it is allowed to happen without at least a say-so from Kremlin officials engaged in propaganda, if not an order," he said.

Savchuk agrees. "I was told on the first day that we were working for the good of the motherland, that we were supporting the authorities," she said.

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