The Russian factory of lies is operational and spreads to new continents | International

Facebook data center in Lulea (Sweden), in a 2013 image.
Facebook data center in Lulea (Sweden), in a 2013 image.JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP

In an office complex in Saint Petersburg, in Montenegro or in business centers in Ghana or Nigeria. The Russian factory of lies, the troll farm that sowed hoaxes in American politics during the 2016 presidential election campaign, polarized the debate and interfered with its propaganda, has not been deactivated. The original farm has been copied and many of its operations have been outsourced. The operations of the propaganda machine, which exposed the vulnerabilities of the system and the magnitude and strength of Russia’s interference and disinformation operations, have spread throughout the United States, several European countries and some in Africa. Meanwhile, Internet giants and Western governments try to stand up to it; in some cases with not entirely clean techniques.

The technique is the same as that practiced by Vitaly Bespalov for a few weeks in 2015. The young man worked in a four-story concrete building on Savushkina Street in Saint Petersburg, headquarters of the so-called Internet Research Agency (AII) and troll farm matrix, to defend pro-Russian positions during one of the peaks of the conflict in Ukraine and later on American politics. “It was about feeding the discourse and sowing the networks of false and interested comments to benefit Russia,” says Bespalov, who today works in an organization to defend LGTBI rights. Behind camouflaged turnstiles and protected by security guards, a group of bloggers, ex-journalists and other profiles recruited to launch the “carousel of lies,” describes activist and researcher Liudmila Savchuk, who had been working undercover at the trolley factory. Petersburg at the end of 2014 and which contributed to unmasking the plot.

That disinformation operation was considered successful and was the germ of a new mission, designed to intervene in the 2016 presidential elections, this time aimed at the American audience. A new team of English-speaking people on higher salaries created a rigorous quota of inflammatory posts about candidate Hillary Clinton, racial justice or Donald Trump, posing as Americans. The polarized environment was fertile ground for Russian trolls, who amplified the already seething discord.

A propaganda machine that was also dedicated to buying advertising and placing advertisements about race, immigration or firearms, which reached about 10 million people in the United States. The online army of trolls, accused of interfering in the 2016 elections is, according to Washington, a part of the business empire of one of the oligarchs in the orbit closest to the Kremlin, Yevgeni Prighozih, US-sanctioned catering businessman The nicknamed as putin’s chef It already proved the system effective when in 2011 it hired dozens of people to compliment it on the main discussion forums online Russians and the media the food of their catering, after several complaints about its quality.

Prigozhin, named in the investigations into the electoral interference of the special prosecutor Robert Mueller, has denied any connection with the agency and with the activities of its propaganda machine. The Kremlin has also rejected the accusations.

Despite the wake-up calls and surveillance mechanisms put in place by internet giants and social media companies following the 2016 scandal, Russian trolley factories have continued to operate, although they have changed their posting techniques somewhat to reduce the chances of being detected. Even so, his influence and his shadow are elongated. His ambitions and his tentacles too. Over the past few months, Twitter has reported that it had deleted thousands of accounts linked to the IIA. In March, Facebook revealed that it had discovered a subsidiary of the Russian troll farm in Ghana and Nigeria, operated by local people but linked to the St. Petersburg IIA, and targeting the United States. And in September it eliminated another batch of accounts, which was still in its development stage and focused its activities on the United States, the United Kingdom, Algeria and Egypt. And he published in English and Arabic on topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, NATO, Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign or the conspiracy of the ultra QAnon group.

Intense activity has led to trolling battles in Africa in recent months. Two weeks ago, Facebook announced that it had identified another Russian disinformation farm linked to the IIA and targeting African countries, and another French one. Rival campaigns targeting mainly this weekend’s elections in the Central African Republic – where Moscow has increasing interests – and 13 other African countries that sought to mislead Internet users and expose each other.

It is the first time that the social network has identified and blocked a group of trolls – linked to “people associated with the French army” – who act in the interests of a Western government. “You can’t fight fire with fire,” warned Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy. He added: “We have these two efforts on different sides of these issues using the same tactics and techniques, and they end up looking the same.”