Inside a Ukrainian Troll Farm

Ukraine’s young new president Volodymyr Zelensky — hailed in the West as an ambitious reformer — is an enthusiastic social media user, deploying his popular Instagram and Facebook accounts to reach large audiences during his recent election campaign.

He hasn’t stopped there. Months since his landslide election in April, Zelensky’s Facebook posts are still receiving tens of thousands of reactions and thousands of comments. His chief of staff even said that the president’s team “doesn’t need journalists” to communicate with citizens, because they can do so directly.

But according to a recent investigation by VoxUkraine, Zelensky’s Facebook page had the most active fake users of any Ukrainian politician — 27,926 inauthentic accounts. They posted almost a quarter of all comments during the period analyzed. Similar ratios were seen for other top politicians.

Interference in U.S. and European elections by Russian internet trolls has become a hot topic in recent years, particularly since the discovery of the Internet Research Agency, a well-resourced “troll farm” in St. Petersburg. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that domestic troll farms — hired by local politicians and campaign managers, not foreigners — could be just as influential.

To understand how these powerful mechanisms function, OCCRP member center Slidstvo.Info sent a journalist undercover to work at a Ukrainian troll farm in advance of this summer’s parliamentary elections.

During a month and a half on the job, the Slidstvo.Info reporter discovered that these social media techniques were used even on behalf of progressive politicians who publicly spoke out against such tactics. For example, the troll farm supported Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, a popular musician whose reformist Holos party now holds 20 seats in parliament.

Reporters were unable to discover who paid the troll factory for its activities, so it’s unclear whether it had been directly hired by any specific campaign. Vakarchuk denied any knowledge of trolling being used on his behalf. Another well-known politician who was promoted by the troll farm, presidential candidate Anatoliy Hrytsenko, refused to comment.

As a company, the troll farm itself is no less misleading than the content it produced. The operation used at least two names — Doping and PRagmatico — to present itself to clients and to its own employees, though neither is registered as a business. Its advertisements for trolling jobs are disguised as benign “content” positions. And the company pays its employees under the table in cash, which is illegal in Ukraine.

Just days before the publication of this story, there was a new development. In a news post on Sept. 16, Facebook announced the closure of dozens of Ukrainian accounts, pages, and groups for “inauthentic behavior.” The activity, it said, was linked to PRagmatico, which it described as a “PR firm.” At the same time, the fake accounts identified by Slidstvo.Info also disappeared.

Though Facebook described its actions as the result of an internal investigation, the timing suggests that the account closures may be linked to the reporting of this story.

A Facebook spokesperson reached for comment reiterated that the social media company is “always working to identify bad actors who are abusing the platform.”

A bot for 365 dollars

One of Zelensky’s first steps as president was to call for snap parliamentary elections. The stakes were high: A good result for his party, Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People), would give him a vast mandate.

Zelensky’s move presaged a hot summer for troll farms — so Slidstvo.Info got to work.

The first step was getting hired. Reporter Vasyl Bidun applied for the position on a job recruitment website, where it was disguised as a “copywriter” job.

Bidun was invited for an interview at an office in a typical residential flat located on the third floor of an apartment building in downtown Kyiv. There were no signs advertising the company, which called itself Doping.

The man who led the interview did not ask about Bidun’s experience or education. Instead, he invited the journalist to start right away, with a monthly salary of 9,000 hryvnia (US$365) — approximately equivalent to a cashier’s salary at a Ukrainian McDonald’s. He also said that the company was still in the process of being registered, so salaries would be paid in cash. (In the end, neither Doping nor the other name the operation used, PRagmatico, ever registered as legal entities.)

The office was tidy and modestly furnished. Its only distinctive feature was a large, open balcony where the young employees took frequent smoke breaks.

The troll farm worked almost around the clock, employing three shifts of workers who toiled between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Bidun chose the morning shift. On his first day, a supervisor briefly explained the job: He was to spend his time posting comments under different identities on Facebook, Ukraine’s most politically active social media platform. To do so, he was given access to dozens of fake accounts created by other troll farm employees.

Bidun’s tasks for the day were assigned through several group channels on the Telegram messaging service — each one devoted to a different client. There were usually several assignments per day, and supervisors provided the key themes on which the comments were supposed to be based.

During a 7-hour shift, Bidun was expected to produce around 300 comments, posted either on the politicians’ personal Facebook pages or under posts of articles published by popular Ukrainian news sites. He was advised to write quickly to meet the quota, without worrying too much about grammar. “People in the real world aren’t that educated,” a manager explained. “So if you write with grammar mistakes, this may even be a positive thing.”

Supervisors’ orders were executed without question. In addition to Bidun, about 10 others worked during his shift. His colleagues were mostly young men and women who seemed to care little about politics — the job required no ideological convictions. And there was little time for talking: The daily quotas needed to be met.

Slidstvo.Info journalist Vasyl Bidun takes a break on the troll farm’s balcony with another employee. Credit: Slidstvo.Info

The Big Fish

During Bidun’s time at the troll farm, the operation worked in the interest of individual politicians running for parliament, as well as several major political parties.

During his first few days on the job, he was placed in a group tasked with supporting Hromadyanska Pozytsiya (Civic Position), a political party led by former defense minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko. The instructions were to post positive comments about the party, Hrytsenko himself, and several more of the party’s candidates.

In his campaign, Hrytsenko, a retired colonel, emphasised the importance of fair and strong leadership. He enjoyed support from activists and progressive politicians during his campaign, and in the presidential election earlier in the year, Hrytsenko came in fifth, with about 7 percent of the vote.

Now that he was running for parliament, the Kyiv troll farm was posting hundreds of positive comments about him and negative comments about his opponents.

🔗FACEBOOK COMMENTS

“Hrytsenko will be able to build a strong army which will help us to return the Donbas; such an army that can withstand the Russian Federation,” read one comment.

“Volodymyr Zelensky has to listen to advice given by such an experienced politician as Anatoliy Hrytsenko because he’s saying the right things,” read another.

“You can attack based on anything,” a supervisor told employees. “You can raise and discuss any topic. Blame the old government, blame the oligarchs. Say that the oligarchs own everyone in the parliament and that all deputies are corrupt. Blame the new government too … say that they are not experienced and that it’s better to elect someone who has political experience. Raise any topic and conclude in the end that Hrytsenko is the best.”

An analysis of reports obtained from the troll farm show that its employees posted nearly 24,000 comments as part of the “Hrytsenko project.” However, with weeks to go before the election, the project ended — perhaps because, according to polling, Hrytsenko’s party was not expected to make it into parliament. This turned out to be the case.

After the election, Slidstvo.Info asked the veteran politician for an interview, but he declined. When reporters sent questions through a press secretary, Hrytsenko called them “amateurish” and refused to talk. When reached by telephone, he hung up.

Meanwhile, there was more work to be done.

After Hrytsenko was out of the running, Bidun and his colleagues received their next assignment. They would now be working in the interest of another politician, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk.

Vakarchuk is a popular politician with an impeccable reputation who came to politics from show business. He is the lead singer of Okean Elzy, which might be the most popular Ukrainian musical group in the world. The group has been performing for more than 20 years.

In advance of the presidential election, Vakarchuk was seen as one of then-president Petro Poroshenko’s key competitors. However, in the end the popular singer decided not to run for president. Instead, Vakarchuk created the Holos (Voice) party, and invited well-known civic leaders to join. In the summer of 2019, he led the party in the parliamentary elections, making the battle against corruption a key part of its platform.

Just days earlier, following supervisors’ orders, Bidun and the other “trolls” had posted comments critical of Vakarchuk, portraying him as a weak and inexperienced politician compared with Anatoliy Hrytsenko.

Now they had a different set of opinions to post:

“Vakarchuk is right: the old politicians must leave.”

“How much longer must we tolerate the evil tricks of the old politicians?”

“We need new faces in politics; Sviatoslav is right: they have been feeding us empty promises for 28 years. Make way for the youth, make way for Holos!”

It is unclear who paid the troll farm to promote Vakarchuk. During the electoral campaign, the candidate’s staff assured Ukrainians that the team never used the services of internet trolls.

In an interview with Slidstvo.Info, Vakarchuk said that he did not even know what a troll farm was.

After being presented with evidence of its support for him, he continued to deny that his political party could have used such techniques. “I officially insist that Holos party has never approved, does not approve, and will never approve such things,” Vakarchuk said, suggesting that the journalists had been set up.

Manipulating public opinion

In 2013, journalists from OCCRP partner Novaya Gazeta exposed the work of Olgino, a Russian agency that formed an army of paid commentators to defend the Kremlin’s positions and attack its opponents.

According to political experts, this type of online activity started in Ukraine as early as 2007.

“Back then, we started noticing that political parties were creating separate departments with the goal of spreading information through comments under posts made by popular publications,” said Oleksiy Koshel, chairman of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine.

“One of the largest such groups had about 50 so-called bots who would actively use hundreds of different nicknames — really, profiles — and spread information through comments.”

During his work for Doping/PRagmatico, Bidun obtained access to internal reports that described how the operation’s fake accounts were created. The thoroughness of the work reveals the extent of the efforts to make the accounts believable.

Each account was established over a period of several months, during which troll farm employees added many friends and shared news links and memes on their feed to make them appear realistic. One technique was to use real accounts from the Russian social media platform Vkontakte, which is banned in Ukraine, as a source for profile pictures. For example, several photos of a man named Igor from the Russian city of Voronezh were used to create a fake account for “Yuriy,” a Ukrainian living in Lutsk.

A focus group convened for Slidstvo.Info by Ukrainian sociologist Orest Biloskurskii examined the question of whether social media users can recognize such accounts as fakes.

The 10 people of varying ages, genders, and professions were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of fake account use as shameful. However, when presented with screenshots of profiles and comments posted by trolls from the Kyiv-based troll farm, they had trouble identifying the fakes. The group was split in half, with participants unable to agree whether a given account or comment was real or that of a paid troll.

Experts from the analytical platform VoxUkraine put together a list of criteria that help social media users identify fake accounts. But the task requires a detailed analysis that most people are unlikely to undertake.

“Only 4 percent of fake commenters have at least one check-in at some geographic location,” said Maryna Ott, an analyst from the organization, which found in its research real people check in at 10 times that rate.

“Additionally, only 20 percent of [fake accounts] have comments under their own posts. For real people, this indicator reaches 80 percent,” Ott said.

Millions in the Shadows

To learn how much such services go for, Slidstvo.Info reporters approached the operation where Bidun worked, introducing themselves as assistants to a politician who is planning to launch a political party.

The reporters were met by Valeriy Savchuk, a political consultant whom Bidun had observed playing a managing role at the troll farm. Savchuk was open about the type of services the operation provided — including trolling, which he referred to as “reputation management services” — for many Ukrainian politicians.

“It doesn’t matter what they write, just that they do,” he said. “The comments are more to focus attention,” he said, explaining that they don’t have to be positive to be effective.

Savchuk said that during that election, 10,000 comments per month cost between $5,000 and $7,000. This works out to about 60 cents per comment. The potential for profit for the service provider is clear. When Bidun was demoted to a freelancer following the elections, he was paid about 5 cents per comment.

A month after the meeting, Slidstvo.Info, now openly approaching him as journalists, asked Savchuk to comment on his work. This time, Savchuk denied having any connection to the troll farm where Bidun had worked.

Update, Sept. 20, 2019: The article has been updated to add a response from Facebook that was received after publication.

Correction, Sept. 20: The article has been updated to correct the name of Oleksiy Koshel.

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