Facebook ads and posts linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency, released to Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’.
Facebook ads and posts linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency, released to Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’.

The women who created fake news

ONE tried his hand at stand-up comedy. Another wrote a psychological dissertation about loneliness among the elderly. A third, from eastern Siberia, studied economics and wildlife management and was known to his work colleagues by the unlikely nickname of "Jay Z".

These are among the 13 Russians indicted by a United States grand jury in a sweeping conspiracy to defraud the country and its political system.

According to US authorities, they were a part of a Kremlin-backed "troll farm" that at its peak in 2016 had a monthly budget of $1.54 million, not including bonuses.

The FBI says the troll farm - which went by the nondescript name of the internet Research Agency - sought to subvert the 2016 presidential election via bogus social media posts and other "information warfare".

Two young women who worked for the agency, Anna Bogacheva and Alexandra Krylova, even travelled around the US for about three weeks in 2014 "under false pretences for the purposes of collecting intelligence to inform the organisation's operatives," the indictment claims, prompting comparisons to state-backed spies in the age of social media.

Most of the workers at the St Petersburg organisation were in their 20s and were promoted to the position due to their proficiency in the English language.

They were certainly aware of what they were doing, but perhaps less aware of the extent of the potential repercussions they might face for their day job. Some have painted them as kids who didn't fully understand how they were being used by the state in a new form of geopolitical subterfuge.

Agata Burdonova, who worked at the troll farm but is not among the 13 employees named in the indictment, even documented some of her activities while at the agency on social media.

A photo that Russian linguist Agata Burdonova, 31, (right) posted to her VKontakte account which shows her getting a hug from Katarina Aistova who was allegedly the head of the media department at the “troll factory”.
A photo that Russian linguist Agata Burdonova, 31, (right) posted to her VKontakte account which shows her getting a hug from Katarina Aistova who was allegedly the head of the media department at the “troll factory”.

Yevgenia Kotlyar, who has been investigating the agency since last year for independent Russian broadcaster Dozhd TV, believes that a lot of the trolls saw it as an easy way to earn money.

"They saw it as simple, well-paid work. What they wrote was not necessarily how they felt inside," she said. "It was business and nothing personal."

Irina Borogan, who co-authored the book Red Web, about cyber activities by Russian security services, said the workers' lighthearted attitude about their job was a way to cope with their involvement in sinister activities.

Ms Kotlyar said some of them probably didn't understand the consequences of their actions.

"What does this list mean for these young, often open-minded people who want to travel and see the world?" she said. "Now they will not be able to do so easily and will have to look out for their security."

Because Russian law doesn't allow for the extradition of its citizens, those under indictment are safe as long as they don't travel to a country that would turn them over to the US.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Putin says he wouldn't dream of complying with US requests for extradition.

"Never. Never. Russia does not extradite its citizens to anyone," he said during a recent interview with America's NBC News.

Despite the links the internet Research Agency has with top government officials and Putin allies, the Russian President continues to deny he knew what Russian troll groups were up to.

"I know that they do not represent the Russian state, the Russian authorities," he said. "What they did specifically, I have no idea."

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a massive rally in his support as a presidential candidate at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Picture: Pavel Golovkin
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a massive rally in his support as a presidential candidate at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Picture: Pavel Golovkin

For those named in the indictment, travelling outside Russia will be fraught with danger if the US continues to pursue them.

The 37-page indictment detailed how Russians used stolen identities to pose as Americans on Facebook and Instagram, creating Facebook groups, buying divisive ads and posting inflammatory images.

The group allegedly controlled the Facebook accounts "Clinton FRAUDation," and "Trumpsters United," and the Twitter account "March for Trump".

Facebook ads and posts linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency, released to Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’.
Facebook ads and posts linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency, released to Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’.

The group were also allegedly responsible for organising political rallies which turned violent.

A leaked document, reportedly put up for sale recently on a Russian "information exchange" called Joker. Buzz which auctions off often stolen or confidential information, revealed more about the inner workings of the internet agency.

While the troll farm's use of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook is now well-known, the leak showed that the internet Research Agency also operated extensively on Reddit and had a substantial footprint on Tumblr.

According to The Daily Beast, the file contained names of Americans activists who the Russians specifically targeted (including the daughter of one of Martin Luther King's lieutenants), as well as the screen names connected to a number of unsuspecting US citizens who were used as unwitting proxies by the Russians to inflame political and social unrest.


Dam water releases start, another 56mm of rain on the way

Dam water releases start, another 56mm of rain on the way

Showers until at least the weekend, falls up to 56mm over five days

Three men on 230 drug supply charges after major operation

Three men on 230 drug supply charges after major operation

Operation Quebec Midway, launched in July, closed last week

Wettest October in 15 years for Qld town

Wettest October in 15 years for Qld town

Dalby has smashed a 15 years rainfall record

Local Partners