Before the days of the internet, most of the political discussions that you had came with friends while out for a few drinks, co-workers around the water cooler, neighbors while in the front yard and family during get-togethers. Because of social media, other internet forums and a 24-hour news cycle, people are having massive political discussions with complete strangers. As you might have already guessed, not all of these conversations are positive.
Certain people like to show up in comment sections and stoke the flames, getting both sides of the argument riled up. These people are usually known as “trolls” and they’ll show up on just about any topic including sports and entertainment. People used to be pretty good about ignoring these trolls in the past, but usually not when it comes to politics. But where do these people come from, and what’s their true intention? It looks like we might finally know.
An independent Russian television station named Rain discovered someone who goes by the name Maksim, who revealed that there’s actually a “factory” of trolls that want to influence political discussion in the United States. The factory was originally known as the Internet Research Agency, and members of the agency were asked to watch the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” to get a better idea of American politics.
These people would then head to some of the biggest websites on the internet, including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and more, leaving messages that denounced former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, while also speaking on the topic of gay marriage, gun control and much more. To protect their identities from being revealed as Russian, they would use a virtual private network (VPN) to give themselves a United States internet service provider address.
Maksim left his position with the agency after about a year and a half, saying that his main job was to drive the discussion (no matter the topic) in certain directions. Regarding Clinton, Maksim said that “About her it was always bad. The basic message was: ‘Aren’t you tired, my American brothers, of the Clintons?” He added that “our goal was to set Americans against their government…to provoke riots, to provoke dissatisfaction. There was a goal to influence opinion, to drive the discussion.”
Those that were part of the agency watched “House of Cards” so that they could “know all the main problems of the United States of America. Tax problems, the problem of (gay marriage), sexual minorities, weapons.” Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff said that “Every comma was reviewed by (Maksim’s) bosses to make sure it was in the right place so it sounded like an American posting by Americans,” and watching the political series helped the trolls pick up on American lingo and speech patterns, as well.
The building where the trolls would do their work was located in St. Petersburg, and was discovered by first posting messages that were supporting the Russian government across different social media websites. It was revealed that the agency had spent $100,000 on political ads over the internet during the 2016 presidential election, with Facebook being the primary target. Facebook turned over thousands of ads that were purchased to the US Senate and House of Representatives as a result.
One surprising thing that Maksim revealed about himself and the nearly 90 employees of the agency was that Russian sympathy wasn’t the endgame in the United States. “We didn’t have the goal to turn Americans toward Russia,” Maksim said. “You couldn’t mention Russia, nor Putin. Because Americans don’t talk about that. THey basically don’t care about Russia and Putin.”
All in all, the agency was found to spend more than $1 million per year to influence political discussion in the United States. Not only were the internet trolls on the payroll, but also activists that travelled across the United States. These activists would organize rallies, with dozens of them being pulled off successfully. Millions were reading the websites that they had created along the way, pushing all different types of topics that included Texas going independent from the rest of the United States.
Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist, said that the effort was made of “Classic Russian intelligence techniques of taking the most extreme voices and amplifying them.” Using the website, Facebook, that he invested in when it started “Was the perfect petri dish for this kind of campaign.” Russian journalist Lyudmila Savchuk warns that these trolls aren’t going anywhere, either, and that their efforts are a “large scale production that works around the clock,” adding that “they don’t take time off for holidays, lunch, nor sleep. A huge quantity of content is being produced.”