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Understanding Russia’s Political Trolling Approach

Russian trolls and propaganda have been officially charged with boosting Donald Trump during the 2016 USA Presidential election, conspiracy theories around coronavirus, 5G, and accusations of Ukrainian leaders being Nazisamong other things.

Political trolling in Russia has reached massive proportions, as evidenced by both investigative journalism (CNN report revealing the existence of ‘troll factories’ in Ghana) and by the ‘big data‘ analysis of trolling activity on the internet. Last year “Twitter.Inc” published a dataset with more than 9 million tweets from 3667 accounts that were “believed to be connected to the Russian Internet Research Agency” an actual Troll Factory.

Putin’s trolls are on Twitter, Ticktock, Facebook, Linkedin, and other realms of the internet, acting as attack dogs for the Russian government. They are hired and commissioned to spread the Kremlin propaganda or disinformation in attempts to influence public opinion and undermine democracies.

“There’s a list of media outlets that, pardon the expression, need to be shit upon” said a former Russian ‘Troll Factory’ employee in an interview with Radio Free Europe. “The money wasn’t bad, but the work was demanding: posting up to 120 comments a day, over an 11-hour shift — in chat rooms, on websites, and in social-media profiles belonging to specific Russian-language news outlets such as the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and RFE/RL’s Russian Service.” he continued.

Russia uses the Trolling approach both at home and abroad: Within Russia, trolls’ activities serve to neutralize dissident voices on the internet and thereby reduce the potential for anti-regime political mobilization. Abroad, Moscow deploys trolls as part of a disruptive and subversive strategy, undermining the liberal order to its advantage.

The pro-Kremlin trolling approach consists of hiring precarious workers who are commissioned to perform specific tasks and whose incentive is therefore not self-expression but the need to earn a living.

Most organized pro-Kremlin trolls work for the Internet Research Agency LLC, commonly known as a ‘troll factory’. The agency was founded in the summer of 2013 in Ol’gino in St Petersburg in the aftermath of two developments: the emergence of social media as a platform for political mobilization during the Arab Spring, and the nationwide wave of anti-regime protests that took place in Russia between 2011 and 2013.

On the Russian front, the classic trolling method is to reappropriate the liberal values of free speech and civic engagement to create a semblance of citizen action. In other words, pro-Kremlin trolling relies on citizens’ critical minds to engage them in debate. However, they quickly give up when they realize that their efforts are going nowhere.

Dissenting voices seem to be another mirage that discourages political mobilization before it occurs. By using this tactic of neutralization-by-trolling to contaminate the internet, thereby undermining it as a space for political engagement and informed debate. Hence, the regime no longer needs to resort to outright coercion or censorship.

Russia applies these methods abroad as well. Pro-Kremlin trolls generate and cultivate a plethora of fake social media accounts to engineer political disorientation and alienation on the internet outside of Russia.

This international strategy mirrors domestic practices of exploiting self-expression on social media. Russia cannot however deploy its ‘neutralization’ tactics on a global scale, It therefore opts for the role of a playful trickster. A trickster can be defined as an actor who is fully embedded within dominant institutions but subverts them by adopting a cynical and derisive attitude towards them. A trickster does not propose any sustainable alternative to the existing order. It acts instead from within it but undermines and corrupts the system.

How Russian Trolls Operate ?

Read How to Spot and Handle a Troll? to learn how best to deal with Russian trolls.

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