“Do not describe me as a former troll – I am the exposer,” said Russian reporter Lyudmila Savchuk at the start of an interview with Polygraph.info revealing details of her life as an employee of the Internet Research Agency, the infamous Russian troll factory based in St. Petersburg.
One of her most vivid memories of the job was from February 27, 2015 – the day Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow, a few blocks from the Kremlin.
“Little bosses were running from one unit to another hastily reassigning people from their current tasks to a hot task, which was switching everybody from writing the blogs to writing comments on the news websites aimed at creating a correct view on the murder,” Savchuk said. “Thousands of comments were saying that the opposition killed their own to blame the government, that it was an American provocation, that it was a Ukrainian provocation. It was all very well organized – there was a person in every office who would tell the trolls what to write and it was out instantly.”
Savchuk infiltrated the St. Petersburg-based, Russian government-controlled “troll factory” with the goal of exposing it. She was sure the truth, if revealed, would cause a public outrage in Russian society and eventually lead to shutting down the program, which she believes is financed by government money -- i.e., by Russian taxpayers. Savchuk even went to a Russian court with a claim against the factory. Her suit was unsuccessful, she said.
Still, she thinks the court helped her main objective -- confirming the existence of the troll factory and the nature of its activities. The U.S. indictment against the Internet Research Agency described the troll factory operations as “engaging in conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
However, the overall outcome of Savchuk’s endeavor was not what she expected: the Russian public passively digested the revelations, treating them with indifference.
The other unexpected outcome was more personal and grave. In early October, Savchuk revealed to an audience at StratCom, the Atlantic Council’s annual disinformation conference in Washington, DC, that she spent months in a mental institution following her escape from the troll factory.
“There is some kind of joke among the people at the factory that one can remain sane in the factory for two months maximum. That is the limit of sanity. After that, you start losing your mind, and that is what happened to me and that is why I left earlier than I initially planned,” Savchuk told Polygraph.info.
A job at the troll factory offers people an opportunity to live the life of their dreams: in virtual reality, they can become anybody they want to be, she said. Some start living the identities they have assumed in order to perform their trolling tasks, and some start believing the lies they have been tasked to create.
“On a mind level, the realization that you can invent any fact, then watch it absolutely synchronized with the media outlets as one massive information outflow and spread worldwide – that absolutely breaks your psyche,” Savchuk said.
Savchuk said she was hired via a personal connection with a former colleague who at the time was managing one of the factory’s “elite secret” units. The entire unit was working on maintaining one personality, “the Russian public’s most favorite type” – a person gifted with extraordinary psychic abilities and knowledge of a fortuneteller.
“On a mind level, the realization that you can invent any fact, then watch it absolutely synchronized with the media outlets as one massive information outflow and spread worldwide – that absolutely breaks your psyche”
“The entire team of young men and women was writing posts in her name in the LiveJournal account –– many, many posts about magic, and once a day there was a propaganda entry,” she said. “It was done in a very creative way, like a prophetic dream or a prediction. Mainly these ‘vision’ posts were anti-American or anti-Ukrainian.” (The LiveJournal blog no longer exists.)
While the American/Ukrainian narrative seemed to be a priority, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was receiving equal attention.
“When the bloggers, trolls, received notes for assignments, they were free to choose which particular topics they wanted to write about. They could choose to praise Putin or to trash America – both counted as equal jobs and [were] paid for equally,” Savchuk said.
She said that Western decision-makers and policy-makers do not pay sufficient attention to this issue because they do not realize the full extent of the threat or the level of its effectiveness.
“The West is always late. They are just trying to catch up with Putin’s propaganda but always late,” Savchuk added.
“I thought I would be able to bring the factory down, but then after working there, I understood that it so much bigger than I had ever imagined,” she said. “The factory is just the tip of the iceberg; what is below is a massive machine that is spreading propaganda and disinformation all over the world.”