While propaganda is everywhere, we’ve been exploring lately how Putin’s Russia has been taking Internet disinformation to an entirely new level. Numerous whistleblowers and media reports have spent the last year or so unearthing Russian Internet propaganda factories, where armies of sockpuppets get paid 40,000 to 50,000 rubles ($800 to $1,000) a month to create proxied, viable, fake personas — specifically tasked with pumping the internet full of toxic disinformation twenty-four hours a day.
Unlike some similar campaigns by the U.S. Russia originally didn’t try very hard to hide these operations’ existence, but that’s already changing. As numerous writers have discovered (myself included), even pointing out that these operations exist will grab you a heaping helping of anonymous troll scorn. If you still haven’t perused it, this recent New York Times Magazine breakdown of Russia’s troll armies is essential reading.
In light of Putin’s not-so-gentle treatment of critics, the bravery some of the program’s whistleblowers continues to be impressive. Lyudmila Savchuk worked at the Russian Internet bile factory for two months, ultimately leaving after finding the work morally repugnant. She’s since been leaking a treasure trove of information about the program, including clandestine videos showing some of the program employees at work. She’s also spearheading a lawsuit against The Agency for Internet Studies, which was finally dragged into court this week after missing the first court hearing.
The company’s specifically being sued for underpayment and a number of labor violations, since it unsurprisingly wasn’t keen on providing employees with traditionally-necessary paperwork. Amusingly, a representative for “The Agency” hoped to settle with Savchuk, but she’s apparently having none of it:
“The agency is now seeking to avoid public scrutiny by offering to compensate her. Yekaterina Nazarova, defending, told the Petrogradsky district court judge the agency was ready to settle with Savchuk, who had asked for a symbolic sum of 10,000 roubles (£118). Nazarova offered to wire the sum to Savchuk’s account, then quickly left the court without speaking to the press.
Savchuk said: “I am very pleased, they pretended they don’t exist at all and now they have come out of the shadows for the first time – we saw their representative. But I will feel that I won only after the troll factory closes completely.”
The problem is that the operation Savchuk’s trying to shut down operates under a spiderweb of various companies with an endless variety of names across numerous different industries (including construction) — all of which are protected by the Russian government. As such, it’s going to be a Sisyphean and dangerous game of legal whac-a-mole; one you’d hope Savchuk survives.