On Friday, a new indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller provided a comprehensive overview of a picture that had been emerging for months. Russia’s Internet Research Agency, with backing from the Kremlin, ran huge “troll factories” where commenters using fake identities manipulated Americans’ online political debates.
New insight into the details of that operation came Saturday, when the Washington Post published an interview with a man who says he worked at one of those ‘factories.’
The Post’s informant, Marat Mindiyarov, is not one of the 13 mostly high-level operatives named in the latest Mueller indictment. Instead, he was one of the rank-and-file workers who advanced Kremlin talking points in online discussions, working from a facility in the St. Petersburg area. He says he worked primarily in a department aimed at manipulating Russian citizens, for instance by leaving comments downplaying the impact of international sanctions on the Russian economy.
These messages were guided by those overseeing the operation, with individual ‘trolls’ rephrasing the messages in their own words. Mindiyarov says he “felt like a character in the book 1984 by George Orwell — a place that you have to write that white is black and black is white.” Some of the untruths were carefully coordinated to give an appearance of authenticity. For instance, Mindiyarov says, “every piece of news was taken care of by three trolls each,” who would between them perform a kind of pantomime “debate” in which one would appear to be convinced of the perspective Russia wanted to promote.
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It amounted, Mindyarov told the Post, to a “factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line.” Mindiyarov says there were 300 to 400 people at the facility where he worked — but this was for a scant few months in late 2014 and early 2015, when, according to the Mueller investigation, the operation was just getting started.
Mindiyarov says that, because he speaks English, he was eventually offered the chance to “transfer to the Facebook department,” where he would have targeted Americans. But, he told the Post, “I failed the test because you had to know English perfectly.” The workers in that department were “totally modern-looking young people, like hipsters . . . you wouldn’t think they could do something like this.”
Perhaps Mindyarov’s most intriguing observation is that Americans seemed far more gullible than Russians when it came to online manipulation. He described the organization’s attempt to sway Russian opinion as “pointless.” “But for Americans,” he continued, “it appears it did work. They aren’t used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it’s accepted to answer for your words.”
That is, in a way, a compliment. Americans are more likely to trust people online because, for much of our history, we have been essentially open and direct with one another. Russians’ skepticism may protect them from trolls, but it’s the consequence of an endemic culture of corruption that has badly hobbled Russia’s economy and society. Americans’ tendency to be trusting seems to have exacted a heavy cost — but accepting dishonesty as a norm, online or off, could be even more damaging.