Russian internet trolls based in a former arms factory in St Petersburg are targeting world leaders online and spreading support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK government has said, citing research.
According to a study funded by the UK government, which plans to share it with major online platforms and other governments, online agents have been found to instruct their 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 accused of interfering in the 2016 election that saw Donald Trump win the presidency. The headquarters would be located in space leased from St. Petersburg’s Arsenal Machine-Building Plant, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.
The study details how the Russian president’s regime attempts to manipulate public opinion on social media, as well as in the comment sections of mainstream media.
The targets include the social media accounts of Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz; and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
The research found that TikTok influencers were paid to amplify pro-Kremlin narratives. Agents have also amplified genuine posts from legitimate social media users who happen to be in line with the Kremlin’s views — ostensibly to evade measures by social media platforms to combat misinformation.
The analysis suggests that one of the main activities is ‘brigatation’, to direct the attention of discussions on social media and in the comment sections of newspapers to favored opinions. Manipulation of polls in Western media has also been observed, in particular to distort the results of a survey on support for sanctions against Russia.
Activities on Twitter and Facebook were detected, but were found to be particularly concentrated on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. A key role in the network would be played by a Telegram channel called “Cyber Front Z”, with the letter Z signifying Russian support for the war.
The social media accounts of bands and musicians such as Daft Punk, David Guetta, Tiesto and Rammstein appear to have been targeted by the disinformation operation.
Researchers say the group appears to have learned from tactics used by conspiracy theorists QAnon and the Islamic State terror group.
The troll farm is said to openly recruit and hire salaried workers, justifying the work as a “patriotic activity” in support of the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and its dastardly troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin’s illegal war.
“The UK government has alerted its international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations.”
Culture Secretary 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 suppress Russian disinformation and follows our decisive action to prevent anyone from doing business with Kremlin-controlled RT and Sputnik outlets.”
The Foreign Office did not identify the researchers behind the work, amid concerns over their safety for carrying out work critical of the Russian president’s regime.
With the Press Association