Russian internet trolls, based in an old arms factory in St. Petersburg, are targeting spokesmen online and spreading support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the British government said, citing research.
According to a study funded by the UK government, which plans to share it with major online platforms and other governments, it has been found that online agents are ordering followers to target Western media and politicians.
The troll factory is suspected of being linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Internet Research Agency, who is accused of meddling in the 2016 election that won Donald Trump the presidency. The headquarters are allegedly located in rented premises of the Arsenal Machine-building Factory in St. Petersburg, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.
The study describes how the Russian presidential regime tries to manipulate public opinion on social media and in the comment sections of major media outlets.
Targets include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s social media accounts; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz; and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
The investigation revealed that TikTok influencers were paid to amplify pro-Kremlin narratives. The agents also amplified genuine messages from legitimate social media users that happen to agree with the Kremlin’s view – seemingly to circumvent the social media platforms’ efforts to combat disinformation.
The analysis suggests that a key activity is “brigades” to draw attention to preferred opinions in discussions on social media and in newspaper comment sections. The manipulation of polls in Western media has also been observed, including to falsify the results of a poll on whether sanctions against Russia were supported.
Activity on Twitter and Facebook was noted but was particularly focused on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. A key role in the network is said to be played by a Telegram channel called “Cyber Front Z”, where the letter Z means Russian support for the war.
Social media accounts of bands and musicians such as Daft Punk, David Guetta, Tiesto and Rammstein appear to have been targets of the disinformation operation.
Researchers say the group appears to have learned from the tactics of QAnon conspiracy theorists and the Islamic State terrorist group.
The troll farm openly recruits and hires employees, justifying the work as “patriotic activity” in support of “military special operation” in Ukraine.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and its shady troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin’s illegal war.
“The UK government has alerted international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations.”
Culture Minister Nadine Dorries said: “These are insidious attempts by Putin and his propaganda machine to deceive the world about the brutality he is inflicting on the Ukrainian people.
“This evidence will help us more effectively identify and remove Russian disinformation, and follows our determined actions to prevent anyone from doing business with Kremlin-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik.”
The Foreign Office did not identify the researchers behind the work due to concerns about their safety for conducting work criticizing the Russian presidential regime.
with the Press Association