Dozhd calls him “Maxim,” but that’s not his real name. The TV network says Max’s employment records confirm that he spent 18 months at 55 Savushkina in St. Petersburg, working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), Russia’s infamous “troll factory”, Meduza reports.
He quit in early 2015, before Donald Trump even announced his presidential candidacy, but not too soon to get a taste of the “factory’s” war on Hillary Clinton.
According to Max, the IRA’s “foreign desk” had open orders to “influence opinions” and change the direction of online discussions. He says this department within the agency considered itself above the “Russian desk,” which he claims is generally “bots and trolls.” The foreign desk was supposedly more sophisticated. People in his department, he says, were trained and educated to know the nuances of American social polemics on tax issues, LGBT rights, the gun debate, and more.
Once employees got a sense of what Americans naturally discussed in comment forums and on social media, their job was to incite them further and try to “rock the boat.”
Read alsoAnalysts elaborate on Russia's pro-Trump Campaign fake social media accountsAccording to Max, the Internet Research Agency’s foreign desk was prohibited from promoting anything about Russia or Putin.
“Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he claims. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”
The trolls at the IRA were also careful about covering their tracks. Max says anyone working in the foreign desk was required to post comments using a VPN, to disguise their Russian origins. The IRA even employed staff to spy on its own trolls, Max says.
Even two years before Americans actually voted on their next president, St. Petersburg trolls were told to attack Hillary Clinton, reminding Internet users about her wealth, her husband’s legacy, and her various corruption scandals. The IRA even encouraged employees to watch Netflix’s “House of Cards,” supposedly as an education in U.S. politics. Staff would also monitor each other’s use of English, nitpicking over grammar and punctuation, in order to weed out ESL formulations.
Read alsoGoogle uncovers Russian-bought ads on YouTube, Gmail, other platformsA separate “Facebook desk” supposedly battled endlessly with the website’s administrators, who regularly deleted their fake accounts just as IRA staff managed to “develop” them into supposedly powerhouse influencers (accounts with many friends and posts). IRA staff challenged these decisions, Max said, arguing that they believed in what they were doing, and were entitled to free speech. Sometimes they even won, according to Max.
Max says the international desk had about 200 employees, each earning 50,000 rubles ($870) a month. Staff would work two days, then have two days off, before repeating the schedule. People worked 12-hour shifts, he says.
Before he left, Max says the IRA started demanding more from its staff, fining employees more often and focusing more on the quantity than the quality of their output. Then there was a change in management and all his co-workers were fired, he says.
Read alsoRussian journalist exposes the Kremlin's secret Internet troll factoryThe staff changes apparently followed an employee’s decision to grant an interview to local reporters, including leaked photos of the IRA’s St. Petersburg office. “They found the culprits quickly,” Max says.
In early 2015, something happened, Max says, and the IRA apparently started burning documents. He didn’t see it himself, but he says he could smell the fire in the office building. Staff were ordered to delete their records, people started being reassigned, “and everything got much worse,” Max claims.
After the leak and the interview, IRA administrators apparently started meeting specifically with employees, telling them that they should be proud, not ashamed, of their work. “Because every country has their own kind of organization that defends their national interests and distributes civil unrest,” managers told staff. “This is information war, and it’s official.”