Russian journalists have been writing about them for almost two years. Western reporters joined the party last summer. By now, just about anyone who keeps an eye on the Russian Internet is familiar with the concept of Russian “troll factories”: whole offices of paid staff posing as ordinary citizens online, leaving phony comments on news stories and blogs, trying to drown out voices that criticize the Kremlin.
Last week, calling herself a freelance investigative reporter and a civic activist, a woman named Lyudmila Savchuk announced that she is suing Russia’s most famous “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency, located in St. Petersburg. Savchuk says she worked for this office from January 2015 to March 2015 as an undercover reporter.
With help from the Team 29 legal firm, Savchuk says she is taking the Internet Research Agency to court over a labor dispute: illegal hiring and salary practices. In the unlikely event that she wins the case, Savchuk promises to donate her court award to charity. The real purpose of her suit, however, is forcing the firm to appear publicly before the law, where more people will learn about its scandalous work, she hopes.
On June 1, however, the day Savchuk’s trial was scheduled to begin, no one from Internet Research Agency showed up, and the judge postponed the hearing until June 23. (As it turns out, Savchuk’s passport documents weren’t in proper order, either.)
Despite this setback in trying to out the people behind Russia’s biggest “troll factory,” Savchuk has succeeded in giving several interviews to liberal media outlets like TV Rain, Echo of Moscow, Novaya Gazeta, and Snob. She also spoke to RuNet Echo, saying that her encounters with the foreign press have not always gone smoothly:
И еще очень неприятно читать моих коллег-журналистов, которые извращают мои слова и приписывают мне слова, мысли и чувства, которых я не говорила и не имела. Так было с Франц Пресс и другими СМИ. У них своя информационная война и задача представить меня как зарвавшегося тролля. И они это делают. Поэтому общаться с журналистами мне трудно.
It’s very unpleasant to read my journalist-colleagues who distort my words and credit me with thoughts and feelings that I never expressed or had. It was like this with Agence France-Presse and other media outlets. They have their own information war to fight, and it’s their job to present me as a troll who got in over her head. And that’s what they’re doing, and that’s why it’s hard for me to talk to journalists.
Savchuk is referring to an April 5, 2015, article in Agence France-Presse that begins, “Lyudmila Savchuk says it was money that wooed her into the ranks of the Kremlin's online army.” Savchuk told RuNet Echo that this is a lie. “I said clearly to Agence France-Presse’s correspondent, Marina Koreneva, that I went [to the troll factory] to investigate,” Savchuk explained, saying she’d have joined up even without pay, just to learn more about the operation. “They spread this lie across the whole world,” she says dismayed.
Savchuk says she is convinced that the funding for Russia’s troll factories comes from the government and somehow fits into the state’s propaganda efforts:
Это действительно огромная трата денег в пустоту, вы правы. Нам неизвестно их происхождение, но, судя по всему, они из того же источника, что и деньги, питающие российское тв и кремлевские СМИ. Так как повестка одна и та же. Те же тезисы, подача, тематика. Так что есть все основания подозревать, что финансирование пропаганды в интернете идет из денег налогоплательщиков.
It really is a waste of an enormous amount of money. We don’t know the funding’s source, but it apparently comes from the same place as the money feeding Russian state television and the pro-Kremlin mass media. And the agendas are one in the same—the same main ideas, the same delivery, and the same themes. So there is every reason to suspect that the funding for Internet propaganda is taxpayers’ money.
Savchuk strongly disagrees, moreover, with those who say this spending is merely wasteful. She argues that it’s downright dangerous:
Я не думаю, что это только “безобидное” распиливание бюджета. Я всегда спорю с людьми, которые недооценивают серьезность проблемы. Это не только распил но и растление молодежи. И вообще разжигание национальной и любой другой розни. Боюсь, что скоро начнут люди бить друг друга на улицах потому что у них разные взгляды. Они насаждают какое-то странное раздвоение.
I don’t think this is just “harmless” skimming off the state budget. I always argue with people who underestimate the seriousness of this problem. This isn’t just graft; it’s also the corruption of the youth. Generally speaking, we’re talking about the incitement of ethnic hatred and other tensions. I’m afraid that soon people will start fighting each other in the streets because of different political views. [The trolls] are cultivating a strange social dichotomy [between patriots and traitors].
Savchuk insists that this sense of agitation is palpable in the streets, saying the “same intonation” that’s spread online is finding its way into ordinary conversations.
In March, after she leaked reports to Novaya Gazeta and another newspaper, Savchuk’s troll-factory bosses discovered her sabotage and fired her immediately. Shortly later, she founded an online community called Information Peace (a play on the phrase “information war”), seeking to undermine and raise awareness about Russia’s troll factories.
Though most people would likely assume that Savchuk’s activism is strongly anti-Putin, she says some of her group’s members are in fact supporters of the President:
Я не оппозиционер в данном случае. В нашем движении есть и любители Путина. Нас возмущает информационная война в принципе, и моя известность причиняет мне больше беспокойств, чем радостей. Я журналист и гражданский активист уже давно.
I’m not an oppositionist in this case. Our movement also has Putin supporters. We are outraged on principle by the information war, and my own personal public visibility brings me more anxiety than joy. I’ve been a journalist and a civic activist for a long time already.
So far, the only outlets that have really reported Savchuk’s story are the foreign media, which no one in Russia reads, and the domestic liberal publications, whose audiences are already largely familiar with the evils of troll factories. This doesn’t make Savchuk a traitor or even a liberal, though, in her eyes. “We have a tendency to accuse everyone who demands justice and respect for the law of being a liberal oppositionist,” she says.