The Russians who worked for a notorious St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election were required to watch the “House of Cards” television series to help them craft messages to “set up the Americans against their own government,” according to an interview broadcast Sunday (in Russian) with a former member of the troll factory’s elite English language department.
The interview, broadcast by the independent Russian TV station Rain, provides new insight into how the troll factory formerly known as the Internet Research Agency targeted U.S. audiences in part by posting provocative “comments” pretending to be from Americans on newspaper articles that appeared on the websites of the New York Times and Washington Post.
A central theme of this messaging was demonizing Hillary Clinton by playing up the past scandals of her husband’s administration, her wealth and her use of a private email server, according to the interview with the agency worker, identified only as “Maksim,” with his face concealed.
“Maksim” says he worked for the agency during 2015, the year before the election, when it was already focusing its attention on Clinton.
“The main message is: Are not you, my American brothers, tired of the Clintons? How many have they already been?” Maksim says, adding that he and his colleagues were told to emphasize the Clintons’ past “corruption scandals.”
But more broadly, the instructions given to employees of the English language department were to stoke discontent about the U.S. government and the Obama administration in particular. “We had a goal to set up the Americans against their own government,” he says. “To cause unrest, cause discontent [and] lower [President] Obama’s rating.”
Just how effective “comments” placed on the websites of American news organizations are in influencing public opinion, if they do anything at all, is far from clear. Still, the interview is potentially significant. Although other Russian language trolls who worked in the agency’s domestic departments have spoken out in the past, Maksim appears to be the first member of the highly selective English language section to describe the agency’s meticulous methods. This is the same department that Facebook has said covertly placed over 3,000 messages on its platform — one component in the Russian “influence campaign” during last year’s election that is getting increased attention from the House and Senate intelligence committees.
The Rain broadcast says the station’s journalists verified Maksim’s bona fides because he was able to produce documents showing that he worked for about a year at the Internet Research Agency, the former name of a media conglomerate that is believed to be owned by Evgeny Progozhin, a wealthy oligarch and restaurateur who is widely known as “Putin’s chef.”
While the anti-Clinton messaging Maksim describes is consistent with the longstanding conclusions reached by the U.S. intelligence community about the Russian influence campaign, Maksim’s account adds some colorful new details — especially the requirement that the agency’s English language trolls study “House of Cards” to better understand American politics.
The popular Netflix TV series features a ruthless, power-hungry South Carolina congressman (played by Kevin Spacey) who, with the aid of his equally ambitious wife (played by Robin Wright), rises to the presidency, in part by cutting corrupt deals, planting damaging stories about his political foes in the press, and then covering his tracks by murdering a fellow congressman and a journalist.
“At first we were forced to watch the ‘House of Cards’ in English,” said Maksim in the interview. It was part of a documented “strategy” in the English language department to fully understand how the American political system works. “It was necessary to know all the main problems of the United States of America. Tax problems, the problem of gays, sexual minorities, weapons,” he said.
“You were given a list of media that you had to monitor and comment on — New York Times, Washington Post,” he added. The trolls were required to look through thousands of comments on the publications’ articles. “It was necessary to look through all this and understand the general trend, what people were writing about, what they are arguing about,” he said. “And then get into the dispute yourself to kindle it, try to rock the boat.”
The trolls were even measured by “how much you got ‘likes.’ The comment was supposed to provoke a discussion.”
The trolls were also instructed to use VPN’s — virtual private networks — for their posts in order to disguise their Russian origin. “If they caught you using a Russian IP address, you’d get a dressing down,” he said.
Among the major themes the trolls were to write about in their posts were guns and gays. “When it was gays, we almost always had to bring out the religious themes,” he said. “Americans are very religious, especially those [who post] on news sites and write comments. You had to write that sodomy is a sin. That could always get you a couple of dozen ‘likes.’”
But among the subjects the trolls were told to avoid entirely was any mention of Russia or its president. “Neither Russia nor Putin could be mentioned,” he said. “Because the Americans do not talk about it. They, in fact, do not care about Russia and Putin.”
Special correspondent Patrick Reevell contributed to this report from Moscow
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