Anyone who regularly reads the Web sites of the mainstream German media outlets cannot help but be struck by the huge number of pro-Russian commenters. Putin certainly has his fans in Germany, but sometimes the grammar or odd word choice arouses suspicion that not all of these commenters are German.
The respected weekly Die Zeit has been hit hard by these "troll" commenters and recently pointed to Kremlin as the source of the anti-West vitriol in the reader forums:
Allerdings verdichten sich die Hinweise, dass der Kreml im Kampf um die öffentliche Meinung aufgerüstet hat. Soziale Netzwerke und Kommentarleisten wichtiger Medien sind im Visier der russischen Propaganda-Maschine. Vor allem in Deutschland, England und den USA hat eine Debatte über manipulierte Kommentare begonnen, doch so vielfältig die Verdachtsmomente sind, so dürftig sind die Beweise.
(Certainly there are indications that the Kremlin has been arming itself for the battle for public opinion. The Russian propaganda machine has set its sights on social media sites and reader commentary sections of important media properties. The debate concerning the manipulation of comments - especially in Germany, England, and the US - has already begun. But despite the high degree of suspicion, concrete proof is difficult to come by.)
Well, now we have plenty of concrete evidence (Beweise). The New York Times Magazine is publishing a fascinating piece by Adrian Chen, a journalist and writer, who managed to penetrate the Internet Research Agency, a vast disinformation operation financed and run by the Kremlin. The "Agency" hires thousands of well-educated Russian young people who are paid generously to "troll" social media sites and reader forums in Russia, Europe and the United States to wreak havoc.
One of these paid trolls - a young woman named Ludmila Savchuk, described in detail her work at one of the agency sites in St. Petersburg:
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
And the St.Petersburg Agency operation - huge as it is - is just the tip the iceberg:
Savchuk’s revelations about the agency have fascinated Russia not because they are shocking but because they confirm what everyone has long suspected: The Russian Internet is awash in trolls. “This troll business becomes more popular year by year,” says Platon Mamatov, who says that he ran his own troll farm in the Ural Mountains from 2008 to 2013. During that time he employed from 20 to 40 people, mostly students and young mothers, to carry out online tasks for Kremlin contacts and local and regional authorities from Putin’s United Russia party. Mamatov says there are scores of operations like his around the country, working for government authorities at every level. Because the industry is secretive, with its funds funneled through a maze of innocuous-sounding contracts and shell businesses, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many people are at work trolling today. But Mamatov claims “there are thousands — I’m not sure about how many, but yes, really, thousands.”
It is interesting to read the readers' comments to Adrian Chen's article. "The Agency" is hard at work.