The number of networks of Russian-sponsored trolls spreading propaganda to the United States and Europe may number in the hundreds, including the one team drawing wide attention for blitzing American social media outlets last year with divisive information in a bid to tip voter sympathies to Donald Trump, according to an Obama administration Pentagon official.
"Dozens, if not hundreds of troll networks” supported by Russian operatives are likely operating today, including in countries outside Russia such as Albania, Cyprus and Macedonia, said Michael Carpenter, who specialized in Russia issues as a senior Defense Department official during the Obama administration.
A series of revelations in recent weeks, many flowing from an expose that a Russian online magazine published on Tuesday, have lifted the veil on what may be the biggest troll factory – a St. Petersburg-based operation in which 80 to 90 employees devoted their time solely to posing as Americans and trying to lure U.S. citizens to interact with them. CNN reported it has been bankrolled with millions of dollars from Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime crony of Russia President Vladimir Putin.
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the committee has encouraged Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media companies “to investigate whether other known troll farms were also used to post this kind of content and misinformation" during last year’s election campaign. Warner recently asked Facebook if it had any information about whether fake news and ads that it ran during the elections came from Macedonia, Belarus or Estonia.
Without making a single trip to the United States, operatives for the troll farm’s “American Division” drew U.S. activists to about 40 rallies in cities across the country on subjects ranging from Muslim immigration to civil rights, the independent Russian magazine RBC reported. The operation, known as the Internet Research Agency, also recruited about 100 “unsuspecting activists” in U.S. cities who unwittingly pushed the phony agendas for a total of about $80,000, said RBC, which said it spoke with former employees of the operation and obtained internal documents.
The rallies included one in October, shortly before the election, in the presidential swing state of North Carolina. A Russian troll operating under the auspices of a fake organization called BlackmattersUS.com, RBC said, sent a Facebook message seeking the organizing skills of Charlotte activist Conrad James, who heads a movement called “Living Ultra-Violet.” It said James confirmed that he put together the rally, gathering other minority activists for the event and showing up with a megaphone. McClatchy could not reach James for comment.
Also among those duped, the magazine said, were self-defense trainers in New York, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan, and Tampa, Florida, who were paid to offer free classes. It said most of the 130 people who took them were black teenagers and women, an exercise apparently intended to stoke fear among African Americans.
RBC said the St. Petersburg trolls shaped their content on social issues that meshed with Trump’s rhetoric, quoting them as calling it “correlation rather than direct support” for the Republican nominee. The messages often sought to associate Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, with problems caused by “the ruling party” — the Obama administration, it said.
Facebook has said the Internet Research Agency paid $100,000 for 3,000 ads to promote content on its platform and estimated that the Russian posts likely reached about 10 million people. But RBC reported that the numbers peaked at 70 million page views per week in October, at a cost as low as a penny for each contact. There has been no indication to date that the Russian-backed operatives paid to use Twitter’s products.
Carpenter said most of Russia’s troll networks are much smaller and more loosely knit than the one employing several hundred workers in St. Petersburg. Some are comprised of as few as two or three freelancers, he said.
In Russia, Carpenter said, the trolls “effusively praise the Putin regime and spread conspiracy theories about the West, such as the false claim that U.S. intelligence agencies were behind the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.”
Nemtsov, a physicist, was shot to death on a Moscow bridge in 2015 shortly after calling for a public march to protest Russia’s backing of separatists who invaded eastern Ukraine.
Troll farms aimed at the United States were just one facet of the multi-pronged cyber offensive that Russia unleashed on the United States last year, ultimately in an attempt to lift Trump to the White House, U.S. intelligence agencies have said. The Russians also hacked top Democrats’ emails, including those of Clinton’s campaign manager, and tried to penetrate state voting systems, triggering investigations by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and a Justice Department special counsel.
Putin has repeatedly denied that Russia meddled in the U.S. election, but he recently suggested that “patriotic hackers” may have done so.
Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed to Putin’s remark and noted that the Kremlin uses proxies and cut-outs for cyber hacking and when deploying Russian and foreign-based trolls.
The freelance trolls “are essentially trolls for hire,” Carpenter said, and “are paid by Kremlin proxies or via the Dark Web,” a part of the internet where criminals lurk and where bitcoin can be used to transfer money.
"I don't think there are many troll factories in organized buildings," like the one in St. Petersburg, said Molly McKew, an expert in information warfare who has advised Eastern European nations. “Russians like to structure things in very informal networks, with one or two people connected to a Russian source."
The Kremlin also likes to stay "one step back so they have deniability in all their operations," she said.
A rash of recent news reports have detailed how trolls operate outside of Russia, especially in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where they have earned substantial incomes by setting up U.S. politics websites and sending sensational or false stories to generate Web traffic that leads to advertising revenue.
Countries in Eastern Europe have long sought to track Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at weakening their democracies.
Eric Chenoweth, co-founder of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, said his group and others warned the U.S. government as long ago as the 1990s about Russia’s disinformation efforts as they watched the destabilizing effects in former Soviet bloc nations.
But, he said, nobody would listen.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent