With fifteen years under my belt writing about astroturf, think tanks, fauxcademics, and other dirty lobbying and policy tricks, I’ve always had a hobbyist’s fascination with propaganda, especially online. When done “correctly,” disinformation or guerrilla marketing is utterly invisible. When done poorly — you get more comedic, ham-fisted attempts at information control, like Scientology’s personal website’s attacks on the new HBO documentary “Going Clear” or, well, ISP-paid sockpuppets who insist they fight net neutrality because they just love internet freedom so very much.
Of course, the one-two punch of violence and propaganda has for some time put Putin’s Russia on another level of intellectual aggression. The Guardian recently penned a pretty fascinating interview with several members of Putin’s internet troll army, paid to spam forums, websites, and social networks around the globe with pro-Putin propaganda. Working in twelve-hour shifts in a nondescript building marked “business center,” hundreds of writers work in “humourless and draconian” teams dedicated toward supporting Putin’s worldview for 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. And it often works:
“The scariest thing is when you talk to your friends and they are repeating the same things you saw in the technical tasks, and you realize that all this is having an effect,” the former worker said.
Marat, 40, worked in a different department, where employees went methodically through chat forums in various cities, leaving posts. “First thing in the morning, we’d come in, turn on a proxy server to hide our real location, and then read the technical tasks we had been sent,” he said. The trolls worked in teams of three. The first one would leave a complaint about some problem or other, or simply post a link, then the other two would wade in, using links to articles on Kremlin-friendly websites and “comedy” photographs lampooning western or Ukrainian leaders with abusive captions.
The staffers work around the clock creating and maintaining proxied, viable fake personas, sure to discuss their favorite music and recipes, peppered authentically with rants about the Kiev government being fascist. Hand in hand with tens of thousands of Twitter bots, they create a massive sound wall that makes Apple’s reality distortion field look like a nineteenth century circus performance. The Guardian points to websites like this one set up with Internet memes to make mocking Putin opponents that much easier:
“Many of them have obvious racist or homophobic overtones. Barack Obama eating a banana or depicted as a monkey, or the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in drag, declaring: “We are preparing for European integration.” The trolls have to post the photographs together with information they can pull from a website marketed as a “patriotic Russian Wikipedia”, featuring ideologically acceptable versions of world events.”
Of course, as Glyn noted earlier this week, the Russian government has moved to “clarify” existing law and is now declaring all internet memes illegal — unless of course you’re paid by the government to twist and distort the very fabric of online reality. It probably goes without saying that the United States certainly is no saint on this front (industry astroturfing or the media coverage of the Iraq war quickly leap to mind), but Putin’s frontal-assault on the internet is starting to make Orwell’s darkest predictions seem like playful childhood fiction.