Inside the Kremlin Troll Army Machine: Templates, Guidelines, and Paid Posts

Entrance of the Savushkina, 55 "troll army" headquarters in St. Petersburg. Photo by Moi Region.

Entrance of the Savushkina, 55 “troll army” headquarters in St. Petersburg. Photo by Moi Region.

It has long been an open secret that an army of paid Russian Internet commenters works out of a sleepy residential neighborhood in northern St. Petersburg. A new report from Moi Region and Novaya Gazeta provides an even more revealing view into the so-called “troll den” that allegedly produces thousands of pro-Kremlin posts and comments every day.

Andrei Soshnikov of the weekly St. Petersburg publication Moi Region secured a collection of documents and an interview from a former employee of the notorious Internet Research Agency, which employs over 400 people in a non-descript building located at 55 Savushkina str. in St. Petersburg.

The interview mostly confirms what many already know about the hundreds of employees who collectively manage thousand of social media accounts on LiveJournal, Twitter, and other platforms. These users produce pro-Kremlin posts, based on prepackaged talking points, and sandwich them between apolitical posts about photography, fashion, sports, and other trivial subjects. Aside from a rare, albeit brief, undercover video of the Internet commenters at work, the most interesting part of Soshnikov’s article is a revealing cache of documents that provides a partial list of LiveJournal accounts operated by employees, along with the talking points provided to employees following the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

A rare glimpse inside the "troll army headquarters" of Savushkina 55. Screencap from a video posted by Andrei Soshnikov to YouTube.

A rare glimpse inside the “troll army headquarters” of Savushkina 55. Screencap from a video posted by Andrei Soshnikov to YouTube.

Working as a paid commenter is not as easy as one might think, as the Internet Research Agency has strict and demanding guidelines for fabricated posts.

Общие требования к написанию постов:
– ОБЯЗАТЕЛЬНОЕ использование ключевых слов в заголовке поста (в приоритете ключевики, выделенные жирным шрифтом непосредственно в данном ТЗ),
– ОБЯЗАТЕЛЬНОЕ использование ключевых слов в самом тексте поста,
– ОБЯЗАТЕЛЬНОЕ использование графических изображений или видеороликов, найденных на Youtube, по тематике поста (крайне приветствуется использование картинок, созданных командой Креативного отдела).
– Пост должен содержать не менее 700 символов для дневной смены, и не менее 1000 символов для ночной.
Если пост оформлен с несоблюдением одного из вышеуказанных пунктов, то он не будет засчитан.

General requirements for writing posts:
– MANDATORY use of keywords in the post’s headline (the prioritized keywords are highlighted in bold in this technical specification),
– MANDATORY use of keywords in the body of the post,
– MANDATORY use of graphics/images or videos found on YouTube on the subject of the post (using the images done by the Creative Department is highly welcome)
– A post must contain no less than 700 characters for those working the day shift, and no less than 1000 for those working the night shift.
If a post is non-compliant with the points above, it will not be counted.

Along with these general guidelines, specific talking points and keywords for various subjects—Ukraine, the E.U., the United States, the Russian opposition, etc.—are regularly distributed to the busy staff. The list of “troll”-operated LiveJournal accounts that Soshnikov provides confirms his article’s findings and reveals countless posts that conform to these guidelines.

A typical “sock puppet” account is operated by “Natalya Drozdova,” who has a LiveJournal blog (archive), a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Google+ profile, and a VK account. Of course, Natalya Drozdova is not real—the accounts are operated by an employee named Tatyana Kazakbayeva, according to Soshnikov’s documents—but “she” is interested in “art, psychology, and all that happens in the world.” Most of Natalya’s posts are unremarkable, such as a post (archive) about Facebook removing the “feeling fat” status, a whole array of Fifty Shades of Grey parodies (archive), and a post (archive) requesting advice after a bizarre conflict with a shopping mall janitor over bringing a baby carriage into the bathroom.

But Natalya also has strong opinions (archive) on allowing Iran to continue its nuclear program and wonders (archive) out loud if the Russian opposition movement murdered Boris Nemtsov as a “sacrifice” to further its own ends. The musings of “Natalya Drozdova” follow the guidelines set out by the Internet Research Agency on February 28, the same day as her post on Nemtsov was published.

Leaked brief from February 28:

Техзадание от 28 февраля: «Основная идея: формируем мнение о том, что украинские деятели могут быть замешаны в смерти российского оппозиционера. < …> Смерть Немцова была неслучайной в условиях достижения минских договоренностей и возможного улучшения сотрудничества Украины и России. Теперь же Россия снова стала страной, к которой Запад проявляет негатив. Это явная провокация, направленная на всплеск недовольства представителей оппозиции, которые начнут призывы к митингам и шествиям с целью свержения власти».

Technical brief from February 28: “Main idea: Form an opinion that Ukrainian officials could be involved in the death of the Russian opposition figure. < ...> Nemtsov's death was not accidental given the conditions of achieving the Minsk accords and possible improvement of cooperation between Ukraine and Russia. Now Russia has once again become the country that the West reacts negatively towards. This is an obvious provocation, aimed at rousing dissatisfaction from the members of the opposition, who will now begin calling for marches and rallies to overthrow the government.”

“Natalya”‘s LiveJournal post on Feb 28:

С утра сижу и читаю про обстоятельства убийства Немцова. И чем дальше, тем больше убеждаюсь: его банально принесли в жертву свои же. То, где он был убит Борис Немцов (у стен Кремля), с кем он в это время находился (модель из Киева Анна Дурицкая), способ убийства (не банальная авто- или даже авиакатастрофа, а огнестрельное ранение), а также то, что сама девушка, несмотря на множество выстрелов, не пострадала, говорит, что это была провокация. Провокация того, чтобы люди вышли на улицы и сотворили у нас в стране революцию ( о том, чем бы это закончилось – отдельный разговор).

Since morning I've been sitting and reading about the circumstances of Nemtsov's death. The further I read the more I am convinced: he was simply sacrificed by his own people. Where he was killed (near the Kremlin walls), who he was with at the time (a model from Kiev, Anna Duritskaya), how he was killed (not a simple car or plane crash, but a bullet wound), and also the fact that the girl herself, regardless of many fired shots, was unharmed, point to it being a provocation. Done to provoke people to go out into the streets and make a revolution in our country (how that would end is a separate conversation).

RuNet expert Anton Nossik, in his comment on the Moi Region story, notes that not all pro-Kremlin comments are paid for, but the fabricated ones are clearly visible, and that means paid trolls have little effect on the audience's political views.

Безусловно, далеко не все провластные комментарии в интернете – проплачены. Среди 70 млн пользователей рунета есть миллионы, кто, например, рад войне на Украине. От их постов и комментариев пахнет реальным нездоровьем, ущербностью, озлобленностью… А вот в записях, оставленных по методичке, живой человек не просматривается.

Certainly, not all pro-government comments on the Internet are paid for. Among the RuNet's 70 million users there are millions who rejoice about the war in Ukraine, for instance. Their posts and comments reek of ill health, of inferiority, of rage… But in the posts composed based on talking points a living human is hard to see.

The propaganda war online has received almost as much press as the real conflict in eastern Ukraine, and Russia seems to possess greater resources on both fronts. Ukraine has recently tried to match the Russian troll army by recruiting its own brigade of Internet commenters to “fight propaganda with facts and evidence.” However, as this new glimpse into the front lines of the online information war shows, the Russian side is greater in size, well-funded, and more disciplined in its construction of a massive echo chamber on the RuNet.


  • Vladmir Lenin

    Anxiously awaiting the paid trolls to start commenting

  • Sheesh are the inevitable PUTINBOTS asleep on the job today?

  • Linda Glocke

    The truth cannot be hidden.

    • simonts

      Oh, yes it can be. See Goebbel’s maxim, which Putin and its propaganda organs, e.g. RT, practice diligently daily.

      • DmitryVedeneev

        Could you please tell me how RT is any different from for example the BBC? You dont like RTs experts? But you like the british ones? What about british ones who work at RT? And what about russian ones working at the BBC?

        • Visitor

          “British one who works at RT” – you mean Graham Philips? He seems to be a British intelligence officer; he gathered enough proofs of how RT fosters the war in the Eastern Ukraine and sent the data to competent authorities.

        • Giorgio, Canada

          Entertainment value? High.
          why aren’t you able to discern the difference between BBC and RT? 260 million people a week can.

          • DmitryVedeneev

            therein lies the wub eh? 260 million, totally unaware…

          • Giorgio, Canada

            I am glad you have been enlightened by RT. I am sure that makes for a happy life – enjoy while you manage.

          • DmitryVedeneev

            Yeah what about it? It assumes that such practices are only applicable to Russia. I’ve been a journalist for 10 years, two of them at the BBC, and I read the internet. I know everyone is doing it. And I know why… Because if they don’t the other guy wins. That you think it’s just the old enemies, the Russians and Chinese, you’re mistaken.

          • Giorgio, Canada

            No, you keep arguing against the obvious. BBC’s high standards are vindicated every day by hundreds of millions of people around the world when they tune in to find out what happens in their neighborhood. Because BBC reports on the events they have witnessed, they trust it. I have witnessed, in person, events that were subject to propaganda tension between a totalitarian regime and the Western information. I grant you that the US media were biased (no CNN or FoxNews then) but BBC gave the accounts that could not have been done better. Your individual experience may be different but when people see or hear BBC news about what they just saw in the streets themselves, they know whether it is true. And it is. This is why people around the world trust BBC and laugh at trolls and RT. Not because they are stupid as you suggest but because they are not blind. If any population is the least immune to crude propaganda, it is Russians.

        • Michael Jensen

          Start counting dead journalists, opposition politicians and laws restricting media. Then you will see the differences between the countries and their media

          • DmitryVedeneev

            sure, theyre fine for the most part. admittedly i dont watch a great deal of tv news, but ive yet to see a single death of a journalist that could be attributed to putin. youve been conditioned to believe your media is “free”. you think radio liberty and the bbc are harmless institutions based on the free exchange of information. they are not. in my experience this article about sums it up:

            sure theres been a lot of journalist murders. russia has always been a land of informal laws. to you it looks lawless. but those journalists knew what they were doing. did it anyway. i sympathize with their deaths, but they do not shock me. nor do i focus my ire on a few rich fat cats eating off putins table – they are not the problem. the roots lie in weak political and subsequently social institutions. it will take time to heal what was broken, time many russians desperately wish to give to putin rather than weak western-approved alternatives or oligarchs.

            believe me, ive seen things which would sound ridiculous to you but in russia are a matter of the central governments lack of control (state duma committee on taxation sends summons to local governors aide (via gfs who ignores it… the governors office later claim they never got any such letter).

            people here are surprised at the wests sudden anti-putin cascade. at least hes doing something. if you were russian/crimean/east ukranian, or if you at least spoke our language (second on the internet btw: you might understand a little better.

        • Britain = democracy.
          Russia = not.

          • DmitryVedeneev

            “annihilation served daily” ha? whatever. the average length of service for a british mp is 25 years. 40 in the house of lords. in the us congress its around 20 years. you may think thats democratic, but this only proves that youre an amateur

    • marcomonaco

      is it all you have to say?

  • Guest

    Aric, you should have also told about kremlin trolls who puke on foreign web-forums, being registered under West-sounding names like “John Pipkin”, “Tom Siskin”. And then they write something like: How dares this Obama to interfere into Mr Pukin’s private business.

  • Rik Rina

    Get a grip, people…not everyone loves amerika…you would be surprised how hated amerika is…pathetic amerika and jews. You don’t have to pay me, to say how ugly amerika can be…

  • Joel Andersson

    Putin having to recruit a troll army is a failure in itself. And it’s not really working, at least not in the West. While he manages to attract a lot of loud RT-watching conspiracy-theory crackpots, these are very marginal people with no real influence in either media or politics.

    • Hristo

      You are taking this article seriously as it is stating the truth. LOL. Don’t you feel like you want to be smart from time to time? Then start thinking instead and don’t fall for the cheap propaganda articles like this one.

      • Joel Andersson

        Novaya Gazeta is a very trustworthy source.

        • Hristo

          Why? I thought that all Russian media is government controlled. Don’t I hear this all the time? So, how come you believe Novaya Gazeta?

        • Giorgio, Canada

          Don’t argue with him. He is a troll from this article and that is why he must say that Novaya Gazeta is government controlled (below). Crude nonsense is a must. Honest thought is non-existent. Russia’s is the only regime that hires prostitutes to control the population. Even Soviets were better as they believed in something.

    • optionrider

      But they’re jamming meaningful discussions with their verbal diarrhoea, as electronic jammers were jamming many Western broadcasts to the Soviet Union and bloc countries during the Cold War. This is a modernised old Soviet KGB technique adapted to the Internet era. Since they cannot argue most of their poiints, they make as much senseless noise as their masters can afford to pay for.

  • Alex Simonelis

    Trolls, paid by the thug Putin. Ugh.

  • Flower

    Wow, that sounds really, uh, serious? I’m curious, what is the definition of an “Internet Troll”? I’ve never read a definition. I have a question: are there more “Kremlin trolls” than there are Pentagon run and operated “News” SITES?

  • Lev Havryliv

    These trolls are an important part of Putin’s hybrid warfare. Their cynical inversions of the truth concerning events in Ukraine are breathtaking.

    They are Putin’s prostitutes.

    • DmitryVedeneev

      I would love to hear some examples of these inversions. I’ve always thought they are the invention of the pro-ukranian “stop fake” organizations…

      • Lev Havryliv

        Here is a typical inversion of the truth by Russian trolls. Russia has not sent troops, special forces and mercenaries into east Ukraine or illegally annexed Crimea. Russia is merely concerned for the welfare of Russian speaking people in the Donbas.

        By the way the website is a very objective and accurate source exposing Russian propaganda and disinformation techniques. I suspect you would not recognize objective journalism even if you fell over it.

        • DmitryVedeneev

          Oh please. Not going to beother arguing with you since you have noexamples other than the annexation of crimea. And i suggest you read this:

          I know ukranians like you are chock full of national pride and falling over yourselves trying to believe the kind of objective journalism that suits you best. Thats a good article to start exploring alternatives. Good luck with your integration into western society and banking system…

          • Spiegel

            Mr PooTin is rich enough to buy some Western journalists; he even managed to buy Madame Le Pen. Or do you think it was a pure love of an ageing French lady to a vigorous Russian macho? No way! On the contrary, a 9 mln euro loan for the National Front from a Russian bank. And you tell fairy tales about an article in Spiegel; show me similar articles in The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times…

          • DmitryVedeneev

            Did you register yourself as Spiegel just to refute the post? That’s hilarious. New York times eh? Journalists for sale ha? Whatever man. I’m out a here.

          • optionrider

            So what? It’s not Der Spiegel that decides about Germanyy’s poitics or policies. It’s free to comment, as free press is the rule in democratic societies. It’s the US that guaratees safety of NATO member states and ministers of defence of the remaning ones had better listen if they can’t much US military spendings and powers and don’t want to be next of Fuhrer Putler’s conquest list.

          • DmitryVedeneev

            in other words washington guarantees their security in exchange for them towing the line… yeah couldnt have said it better myself

          • optionrider

            What are you smoking?

          • DmitryVedeneev

            Is that the beat you’ve got? You know I’m right…

          • caap02

            Even if Crimea is the only example, it is a very important and convincing example. Either Putin liked in Feb/March 2014, or he like in Feb/March 2015. Either way, he is lying.

          • DmitryVedeneev

            Sure, that sums it up. It was a tactical lie. But was the us lying about the wmds? Were the georgians lying about south ossetian aggression? Ukraine about glorifying the UPA? Taking crimea was better than getting slowly pushed out by nato. Thats a lie every russian and east ukranian and crimean can live with.

        • DmitryVedeneev

          im reminded of a meme i saw recently that said “the chelyabinsk meteorite fell for 10 seconds and was recorded by hundreds of cameras – russian troops have been riding around ukraine for a year and theres not a single picture or video”

          stuff it you twit. your people have been firebombing innocents. they are criminals. you think the upa is a good thing. enough said.

    • Hristo

      Surely you realize that the role US assigned to Ukraine is the role of a prostitute. They want to fock Russia using Ukraine. Once they are done with it US is going to dispose of Ukraine as one disposes of an old one too many times used prostitute.

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