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Why are Russian trolls spreading online hoaxes in the U.S.?

June 8, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
In St. Petersburg, a shadowy Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency hires trolls to spread propaganda and hoaxes online. Jeffrey Brown interviews Adrian Chen of The New York Times Magazine about what he’s discovered about the group.

JEFFREY BROWN: We turn now to the blurring borders of the Internet in the battle for hearts and minds around the world that sometimes involves massive deception.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown looks at a secret organization that’s working overtime to sell fiction as reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: September 11, 2014, there is an explosion at a chemical factory in St. Mary Parish in Louisiana. The video is soon posted on YouTube, Twitter is flooded with chatter, including screen shots of news Web sites, a local TV station, and, it appears, CNN’s.

A video surfaces of ISIS taking responsibility for the explosion and local residents receive text messages warning them of toxic fumes in the area. Big news, except there was no explosion, the video was a fake, as were the news Web sites that reported it, and the footage of the Islamic State group taking credit.

The social media posts were not what they seemed. As reported in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, it was all the work of the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian organization based in a nondescript building in Saint Petersburg.

Adrian Chen wrote the story. He joins me now.

Welcome to you, Adrian.

This is a very bizarre tale that you have written. Tell us, what is the Internet Research Agency? How much do we know about it?

ADRIAN CHEN, The New York Times Magazine: We know the bare outlines of what it is and what they do.

It’s a group in Saint Petersburg, Russia, that basically hires hundreds of Russians to spread pro-Russian propaganda on the Internet. And one of their tactics is to pretend to be people, Americans and Russians on social media like Facebook and Twitter.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is the world of so-called trolls, and you say at an industrialized level. Explain what trolls, what trolling means in this case.

ADRIAN CHEN: Trolls and trolling are kind of old-school Internet slang. And they mean people who come in and just try to do whatever they can to be disruptive and kind of derail the conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it looks well-organized, it looks like well-targeted.

How is it organized and who’s behind it? There’s a suggestion of an oligarch being behind — at least funding it.

ADRIAN CHEN: Russian opposition newspapers have linked the Internet Research Agency to a man named Evgeny Prigozhin. And his nickname in the Russian press is the Kremlin’s Chef, because he has a lot of connections and contracts with the Kremlin, especially with the Department of Defense.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you talked to people who had worked there. Give us a feel for inside the organization. What is it like to work there? What do they actually do? How much do they know about what they’re doing?

ADRIAN CHEN: Well, everything is kept pretty secretive even to the workers.

What they described was a fairly normal, if kind of rigorous work schedule, where they did 12-hour shifts. They would come in and they would have to post so many hundreds of comments under different personae, you know, pretending to be normal Russians or normal Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I described one case of this Louisiana explosion — supposed explosion. What other kinds of cases have there been? What other kinds of hoaxes? What is the sort of routine stuff that gets sent out from this place?

ADRIAN CHEN: One is this kind of propaganda of pretending to be normal people, praising Putin, slamming Obama.

And then there are these other, kind of more serious things with the hoaxes. And it’s unclear exactly what the relationship is between those types of work. But in the second case, with the hoaxes, there was one where they tried to spread the story that there was an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta when there wasn’t. And also in Atlanta, there was a woman who had been shot by police, and this was right in the middle of all the protests over Ferguson and Michael Brown, and it seemed like a case of trying to jump on this cause and kind of cause some panic.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re right. This became very personal for you. You’re savvy enough technologically to kind of unspool this to figure out who’s doing it. But it turned out they kind of turned the tables on you and made you part of the story.

ADRIAN CHEN: When I went to Saint Petersburg to try to interview some workers, I spoke to one woman who said that she would only meet me with her brother because she was scared and she wanted protection.

And I show up. He’s this kind of really scary looking skinhead with a big swastika tattoo. But she and I had a pretty normal interview. And then I get back to the States and I see that people had been secretly surveilling our meeting, and they had spun this whole tale that I had actually been meeting the person she said was her brother basically to recruit neo-Nazis or something on behalf of the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Adrian, what do we know about the larger goals of all of this? We get the sort of way it works. We get some of the targets, but what’s the big picture? How much do you know about that?

ADRIAN CHEN: I think the big picture is you have to go back to 2011, when there were huge anti-Putin protests in Russia. And those were all organized on Facebook, on social media, led by tech-savvy bloggers and readers who came up through the Internet.

And after that, it became a real priority for the Kremlin to basically crack down on the Internet, make sure that nothing like that happened again. And these trolls, this kind of work, from what I have gathered from talking to activists, it’s really to kind of pollute the Internet, to make it an unreliable source for people, and so that normal Russians who might want to learn about opposition leaders or another side of things from the Kremlin narrative will just not be able to trust it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Adrian Chen, quite a tale. Thanks so much.

ADRIAN CHEN: Thank you.