What Is the Internet Research Agency?

By Krishnadev Calamur

February 17, 2018

The Internet Research Agency is a Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg—in essence a Kremlin-backed enterprise staffed with hundreds of people whose main job is to sow disinformation on the internet. The organization, which serves as a propaganda arm for Russian President Vladimir Putin,  is at the heart of the indictments handed down Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The indictment alleges that IRA officials began targeting the United States in 2014 and continued until the November 2016 election that saw the election of President Trump. (The indictment does not allege collusion between these individuals and the Trump campaign.) The IRA, which is based in St. Petersburg, is funded by Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin. He was among 13 people indicted Friday.

The troll farm’s operations began inside Russia after massive anti-government protests against Putin in 2011. In those demonstrations, the Russian opposition successfully harnessed social media to help drive protesters out into the streets. As Adrian Chen wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2015, Vyascheslav Volodi, the architect of Putin’s domestic policy, came into office in 2012. His job was to rein in the internet. (He was not indicted Friday.)

The battle was conducted on multiple fronts. Laws were passed requiring bloggers to register with the state. A blacklist allowed the government to censor websites without a court order. Internet platforms like Yandex were subjected to political pressure, while others, like VKontakte, were brought under the control of Kremlin allies. Putin gave ideological cover to the crackdown by calling the entire Internet a “C.I.A. project,” one that Russia needed to be protected from. Restrictions online were paired with a new wave of digital propaganda. The government consulted with the same public relations firms that worked with major corporate brands on social-media strategy. It began paying fashion and fitness bloggers to place pro-Kremlin material among innocuous posts about shoes and diets…  

As Putin and his allies took greater control of the Russian internet, opposition voices began getting drowned out online. Russian media reports say the IRA was functioning by the summer of 2013. By the following year, Friday’s indictment points out, the IRA was targeting the U.S.

Chen detailed elaborate hoaxes crafted by the IRA to feed into American fears: On September 11, 2014, for instance, reports circulated online of a toxic-chemical leak in Louisiana. The hoax involved fake social-media accounts, fake videos, and fake news websites mimicking those of real news organizations like CNN, all used to create a veneer of authenticity. Similar hoaxes were designed to spread panic around the killing of unarmed black people by the police and the Ebola virus.

Such acts were taken straight from the Soviet-era playbook on disinformation, designed to sow doubt in the public mind about what’s real and what isn’t. It became what Chen called the “biggest trolling operation in history” whose “target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.” The project was then directed at the U.S. presidential election, as American intelligence agencies and experts have repeatedly said since November 2016. (They have not said whether the Russian interference actually changed the outcome.) As Julia Ioffe wrote last December, the release of the Panama Papers in April 2016 incensed the Russians because among the documents were claims about Putin’s personal wealth.   

In an updated edition of their book, The Red Web, Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan—veteran reporters on the Russian secret services—revealed how and when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the attack on the American election. It happened, according to Soldatov and Borogan, at a meeting in April between Putin and a small inner circle of his national security advisors, most of them former KGB officers. Putin’s decision was also reportedly an emotional, knee-jerk one, in retaliation to the release of the Panama Papers, which implicated him. Because of Putin’s highly conspirological mindset, he apparently blamed Goldman Sachs and Hillary Clinton for the release of the embarrassing information, Soldatov and Borogan reported.

Starting in 2014, the troll factory was given a budget of $1.25 million a month to, in the words of the indictment, “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.” Ioffe described the troll factory more fully:

[It] was largely staffed by college students from the prestigious St. Petersburg State University, Russia’s #2 university; their majors included international relations, linguistics, and journalism. They were, in other words, young, educated, worldly, and urban—the very cohort Americans imagine would rise up against someone like Putin. Instead, they worked in the factory, making nearly double the average Russian’s salary, sowing discord on Twitter, Facebook, and in the comments sections of various websites. They were instructed not to mention Russia, but instead to focus on issues that divided Americans, like guns and race. They learned their subject matter by reading Americans’ social media posts and by watching House of Cards, effectively weaponizing American culture and openness.

The Russian trolls posed as Americans and “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and other political activists.” The indictment alleges that the Russian campaign focused on battleground election states, crafted ads against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and after the elections staged rallies both for and against Trump.

The indictment said the goal of the Russian operation was 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 US. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.” Or as Leonid Volkov, a liberal Russian politician, said to Chen about the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts on the internet inside Russia: “The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it.”

By Krishnadev Calamur // Krishnadev Calamur is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees news coverage. He is a former editor and reporter at NPR and the author of Murder in Mumbai.

February 17, 2018