The case of how the content of propaganda medium Baltnews was curated from Russia has dragged into the light another half-secret – how online comments are procured from troll factories.
Everyone knows it is being done somehow. This is to say that useful online comments are procured and managed in Russia. The conditions on which the Kremlin’s troll factories offer their services were until recently unclear.
The case of propaganda site Baltnews now demonstrates in detail how the apparatus works. It turns out that Aleksandr Kornilov and his partner Aleksandr Dorofeyev, who were paid and instructed what to publish on Baltnews from Moscow, also procured comments from a Russian troll factory.
Logs of Skype conversations at Postimees’ disposal show that it was Dorofeyev who was in charge of comments and that they were procured for “testing purposes” on another website run by the two men called baltija.eu. Both baltija.eu and Baltnews are aimed primarily at the Russian-speaking population in Estonia.
Dorofeyev turned to someone called Artyom over Skype in November three years ago. “As concerns comments, are you in charge of that?” he asked. After receiving an affirmative answer, Dorofeyev wrote that they need comments for baltija.eu for testing purposes.
Artyom: “We are prepared to help. Can we comment on all materials?”
Dorofeyev: “Yes, everything of interest, but do not take old news. How many different IP addresses can you use?”
Artyom: “That depends on the order. If it’s the minimum of 50 comments, they are usually written by one or two people. We do not use proxy servers, we post directly. Why do you need different IPs?”
Dorofeyev: “I see. Let us start with 50 comments from two people on the site I gave you. If everything works out, we can soon move on to more comments and on other websites. Unique IPs are needed to avoid suspicions, so the owner would think these are real visitors.”
While Artyom replied that his rules do not allow him to post on strange websites, the sides agreed to “test” 50 comments on baltija.eu. One comment cost nine rubles or 11 euro cents.
A report sent back to Dorofeyev reveals that fake commentators used aliases like Boris, Russo Turisto, Marks or Brat Stali. They started a fake discussion in several comments sections or jumped into existing conversations.
For instance, in the comments section of a story on terrorist attacks in Paris, the trolls steered the conversation toward the Ukraine conflict. “It pays to keep in mind that terrorists and soldiers in Ukraine were prepared in Estonia. On its territory…” commentator Miha Maklai wrote.
They received an answer from Semyon Markov – one of the names used by paid trolls. “Where is that information from? Ukrainian fighters were trained in the USA. I’ve even seen the bases where they were trained, on more than one occasion. Or an interview with one of the fighters where they describe in detail what they were taught, what they ate etc.”
Another fake commentator known as Tor jumped in. “That is not accurate. Even though I have heard the same opinion, the facts did not back it up,” they wrote in reply to Miha Maklai.
In the comments section of another piece, that really was on the situation in Ukraine, Semyon Markov wrote: “The regime in Kiev is totally dependent on aid from the West. What the West wanted, it got. The Maidan was just a tool to get the job done.”
Another troll under the alias “Russo-Turisto” now jumped in: “Of course, the Maidan was staged by the West, the people didn’t decide to shoot themselves in the foot and volunteer for such slavery. It is another matter that the people do not understand the nature of events and sincerely believe they will have it better in the West.”
Similar fake comments were written under 22 articles. Trolls exhibited an aggressive stance in some cases and maintained a more moderate line in others.
For what future purpose Dorofeyev procured the comments is not revealed in the Skype conversation. When Postimees contacted Dorofeyev for comments, he refused, saying that he has purchased neither clicks nor comments.