Russian "troll slayer" goes undercover at troll factory, finds hundreds working in rotating shifts
Lyudmila Savchuk is a Russian journalist who first exposed the story of Russia's disinformation campaign back in 2014, after she applied to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) as a blogger and got the job.
"I wanted to get in there to see how it works, of course," says Savchuk, according to Business Insider. "But the most important thing was to see if there was some way to stop it."
Savchuk was stunned to see hundreds of mostly younger Russians working as paid trolls in rotating shifts.
Roaming the halls when she could — cameras were everywhere — Savchuk discovered the IRA was full of different "departments." There was the "news division," the "social media seeders", and a group dedicated to producing visual memes known as "demotivators."
Each worker had a quota to fill every day and every night.
Despite the division of labor, the content was remarkably uniform. The U.S., the EU, Ukraine's pro-European government, and Russia's opposition were regular targets for scorn. And then there was Russian President Vladimir Putin — seemingly no Russian triumph under his rule was too small to warrant a celebratory tweet, meme or post.
At one point Savchuk pedaled pro-Kremlin talking points under the guise of a fortune teller. This kind of soft-pedal trolling, Savchuk says, seemed to prove that the IRA was bent on reaching even the most marginal and apolitical of Russia's expanding online audience.
In total, Savchuk spent just two and a half months at the IRA before she went public about the troll factory in a local newspaper.
The operation was run by a local restauranteur who was placed under U.S. sanctions for attempting to interfere with U.S. elections. Her conclusion: The troll farm was a Kremlin project, run by a shadowy local restaurateur named Evgeny Prigozhin.
Even before the local troll exposé spread into a full-blown international scandal, Savchuk shifted to activism: lecturing on disinformation and trying to name and shame participants in the troll farm.
"I acted like any journalist would," she says. "Only, then I went further. I realized an article wasn't enough."
She even sued the IRA in a Russian court in 2015 — winning a symbolic 1 ruble victory over the troll farm for labor code violations.
The court ruling brought the work of the Internet Research Agency "out of the shadows," says Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer who represented Savchuk in the case.
Meanwhile, Savchuk continued to publish her thoughts on countering disinformation to her main online outlet: her Facebook feed. And this is where Savchuk's weird troll-slaying story takes an even weirder turn.
After returning home from a disinformation conference in Washington, DC, in November, Savchuk found her Facebook account inexplicably blocked.
Savchuk posits that IRA trolls may have flooded the platform with complaints about her account. Her problems with Facebook, she notes, started only after she talked openly about threats she'd received from people affiliated with Evgeny Prigozhin.
Meanwhile, the stress and online isolation have taken a toll. Savchuk doesn't hide that she had a breakdown since blowing the whistle on the IRA.
And while she doesn't regret taking on the fight, this troll slayer — now 37 — is no longer convinced she can win.
Even though he was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigative team last year, "Putin's Chef" is doing just fine, Savchuk notes.
A recent investigation into Prigozhin suggests his media empire and government contracts have grown exponentially since the IRA was cast out of the shadows.
Despite — or maybe because of — attention from the U.S., good things keep coming Prigozhin's way.