When St. Petersburg journalism grad Vitaly Bespalov answered an online ad for a writer in 2014, he thought the gig at Russia’s Internet Research Agency might help his fledgling career.
As he quickly learned, what he really signed up for was a job as a paid internet troll.
“They pose as people who are not really them,” he told CBC News at his apartment in St. Petersburg. “By the second or third day, it was clear where I had landed and what this was actually.”
Last month, U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals who worked at the so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. The allegations include fabricating news and using false identities to sow discord in the United States ahead of the vote.
Bespalov left long before that period — after just three months on the job.
“It was really bothering me what I was doing. I knew I had stayed to get more information [on the operation] but this feeling of disgust stayed with me.”
He says he’s sharing his story now with the hope that it makes people more aware of how the “fake news” business works and in the hope that the operation will be shut down.
Bespalov says he was one of roughly 200 employees at the nondescript, low-rise St. Petersburg office building, far removed from the dazzling palaces of the czars that are the city’s major tourist attractions.
He says he worked on a floor devoted to trash-talking Ukraine.
“I had to find 20 articles from Ukraine and rewrite them with the same tone as they would be written by our mass media.”
Russian state media routinely denies its direct involvement in the conflict while denigrating those who support Ukraine’s government.
In 2014, Ukrainian protesters helped overthrow the country’s pro-Russian leader, triggering Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Bespalov says any stories the troll factory could produce that made Ukrainian soldiers look bad were encouraged, especially items involving dead children.
“One example: we saw a news story that some militiamen were hiding in the school and suddenly it was being shelled. Some children died.
“We simply took and wrote that Ukrainian soldiers shot the children and killed them. That’s it. No hesitation,” Bespalov says.
The stories were posted to a fake news site that had a Ukrainian internet address but was secretly run out of the St. Petersburg location, with the idea of making it appear as though many Ukrainians sided with the Russia view of the conflict.
The troll facility allegedly had several different areas devoted to different regions of the world. Bespalov says a team on the top floor was dedicated to posting fake news on Facebook sites.
Another group at the troll factory wrote stories and comments for news sites inside Russia. Marat Minidyarov, 30, says he ended up with that group.
Minidyarov says in late 2014 he was working at the St. Petersburg youth hostel and met a guest who told him about a place he could make good, quick money.
After a brief interview, Minidyarov says he was hired.
‘Never had your own opinion’
“Every morning there was a list and the topics about what you were supposed to write,” he told CBC News in St. Petersburg. “You never had your own opinion, you wrote [what] was written there.
“Putin is always good, always good, always good,” he says. “And Obama was bad. The world was black and white.”
His job was to write in the comments section of Russian news sites and counter anything negative about the Russian government.
“One hundred and thirty-five comments a day. Twenty people a shift. Two shifts day and night. Can you imagine how many comments are coming every day on the internet?”
Both former trolls say they were paid well — about $ 1,000 Canadian a month — all of it in cash.
U.S. authorities have indicted Yevgeny Prigozhin and allege he owned and operated the troll farm. Often referred to as Putin’s chef, he’s the food caterer for the Kremlin and other Russian ministries.
Prigozhin denies any connection to the troll operation.
The Kremlin’s official response to the trolling allegations is that there’s no connection between the facility and the Russian government.
Neither Minidyarov nor Bespalov say they ever saw Prigozhin — or witnessed any direct link with the Kremlin.
“It’s hidden,” says Minidyarov, “so you can’t say for sure. But when I switched on my TV, it was absolutely the same news [on state television]. So why is it the same?”
Bespalov says he is certain that however deeply buried that link is, the troll farm was doing the bidding of the Russian government.
“[Putin] doesn’t see this as problem. In his ideology and view of the world, this is an equivalent step to the so-called ‘negative actions’ that the West is doing against Russia.”
Harassment and intimidation
Both men say they have been harassed and intimidated.
Bespalov was mocked on a Russian news program and portrayed as being a hard-partying opposition supporter. The program played video of him wearing a T-shirt of an opposition candidate and dancing in a nightclub.
In late February, Minidyarov says police tracked him down at a friend’s apartment and brought him in for questioning over an allegation of making a bomb threat.
He says the allegation was entirely bogus.
Bespalov says the troll factory was just beginning to have an impact before he left. Its greater influence came later, when the English language department was set up.
“In the Western audience, I think they are not used to these black games. They are more naive.”