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Operation Cyber Front Z- Russia sets up a new troll farm for war in Ukraine
I am reposting this from the Russian media outlet Fontanka after one of their correspondents spent several hours in the company of organized “fighters against fakes.”
On March 11, the Cyber Front Z channel appeared on Telegram. The first post in it was published the next day with the announcement of recruitment into the cyber troops. “The more successfully our soldiers fight the plague in Ukraine, the more fakes and information attacks appear on us. The Ukrainian propaganda machine is in full swing. They wish us death, and Russia - collapse. Only together we can resist these attacks! We are opening Operation Z Cyber Front to fight back in the information field the propagandists of the Kyiv junta funded by the Western world,” the entry said. For the needs of the "front" spammers, commentators, content analysts, designers, and programmers were required. For working conditions, it was proposed to contact Alexander, in the description of his profile in Telegram, he called himself a “battalion commander of the cyber front”. The Fontanka correspondent went to an interview, passed it successfully, and worked for a day in the cyber troops. How it was and what does the famous Olginsky trolls have to do with it - in the Fontanka report.
Alexander responded immediately, despite the late time - the night of March 15-16: “Salary - 45 thousand a month. Schedule - 2/2. If you are ready to work with us, then I can sign up for an interview.
Recording immediately the next day: there is a free window for 14 hours. Meeting - in the premises of the Bloody bones grill bar on Shipbuilders Street. Although the bar is too big a name for this place. One hall, several tables, a bar counter - all this is in a detached one-story building of a nondescript look.
At 2 pm, people are already sitting at each table. A dark-haired young man explains to the two guys: “Now there is a lot of fake information, because of which there are spontaneous rallies in the Gostinka area. All this leads to sad consequences because all sorts of conflicts with the police always end in five to seven years in prison. Therefore, our movement is called upon to block these fakes.”
Red-haired Yana offers to sit next to a woman of about 50 and gives us questionnaires. The questions in them are quite general: a place of work, study, address of residence, social networks, vaccination against COVID-19. Yana waits for us to fill out the questionnaires and starts talking. “We are working to expose fakes on the agenda of Ukraine. You probably read the news, you see that there is a lot of misinformation, including about civilian casualties. This is the Z patriotic movement. This project is recent, but the [patriotic] movement itself has been around for a long time,” she says. When asked about what else the participants in the movement were doing, he hesitates, but quickly finds something to say: they wrote comments like those that can be found under goods on the Ozon or Yandex sites. “You don’t believe these are real reviews, do you?” she smiles. The woman across from her shakes her head in understanding. Yana continues: the work is not difficult, you will need to write comments on Telegram and on other sites (except for VKontakte - there “the information is more or less neutral”). Chats and channels will be found by curators; how to write rebuttals, what is the point of investing in them, they will also say. There is no need to write a sheet: two or three sentences - and that's enough. “Our guys will work with you, who have been cooking in this topic for several years, they will be able to help if anything.” You need to post 200 comments daily. who has been brewing in this topic for several years, they will be able to help, if anything. You need to post 200 comments daily. who has been brewing in this topic for several years, they will be able to help, if anything. You need to post 200 comments daily.
There are 100 people on a shift. The first two shifts went to work just the other day. The project is long-term: the first month you will need to work from the office on Lenin Square, then you can go remote. The format is informal. The woman opposite clarifies: “Where is the guarantee that you will pay us?” Yana throws up her hands: you have to take a word. “There is no competition, we take everyone. If you agree and are ready to work in the war against fakes, write down the address: the Arsenal plant, at the checkpoint you will say that you are in IP Nekrylov. The first shift is on March 18, you can leave on the 20th. Start work at 9 am.
On Friday morning at the former plant "Arsenal" at the entrance line. Several dozen people are trying to get a new job. The guard takes a long time to write down everyone's passport data. The new ones are collected by Viktor, a dark-haired man of about 30 in a black down jacket of one of the brands that left Russia the other day, a small American flag is pasted on the sleeve under the tag. Victor calls himself a Tiktok curator. “Oh, will I need to post something from my account? I have several thousand subscribers there. True, of course, there have been so many negative comments lately, I don’t understand where they come from, ”a girl in tight black tights makes her eyes at him. “No, they will give you accounts,” Viktor replies. The girl takes a puff on an electronic cigarette. Next to her is a brutal man of about 50 in khaki pants and a knitted hat.
Just half an hour - and those who want to work in the cyber troops find themselves in the office. A small corridor, flags with the letter Z hang on the wall on a black background and on the background of the tricolor. There are several offices in the hallway. There is a queue in one of them - these are those who want to get into the Telegram team. “I’m somehow more used to this social network,” says a guy in frayed jeans to his girlfriend. A young man looks out from another office and shouts to those waiting: “There are a lot of you on Telegram, let’s join me on Youtube.” Three people leave the line and go to him, I - along with them.
The guy who pulled us out of the crowd is Sasha. He is the curator of Youtube direction. Under his leadership, 23 people work in this shift. They are divided into two rooms. Experienced - in a large one, beginners are led into one that is smaller. Instead of a greeting, Sasha sends an old message to Telegram, apparently written before the “cyber warriors” came to the office - the first lines say that the work will be remote. Sasha's nickname is patriotic - Vesti ru. “My name is Alexander, I am your curator. Our division will work on YouTube. Since we will all work with our own technology, a huge request to make sure that your computers and mobile devices have an application or a working YouTube. About accounts: don't worry. I will distribute to you. Now about what tasks await you. The main pool of work will be to create a patriotic picture in the comments under trending videos and in the category “politics and news,” he said in a message. Along with this welcome word is a link to a post in the Cyber Front Z channel:
“The channel will post brief instructions on tasks, mainly they will come down to increasing the presence of patriotic comments in channels where concentrations of Ukrainian bots and trolls are noticed, the formation of pro-Russian comment tops among bloggers and opinion leaders, as well as strengthening the patriotic agenda in public news, where a large percentage of the townsfolk simply do not understand the goals and objectives of the special operation. We are convinced that the raids of Ukrainian Nazis into the Russian information field must be stopped and not allowed to fool our citizens! Cyber Front Z goes on the offensive! »
Sasha adds to what he wrote: “They wish the Russians to die, but we wish them to come to their senses. No insults! We focus on what is written in the channel, there, of course, everything is exaggerated, but it’s true. If you want, you can express your opinion."
Sasha arrived several years ago from Kazakhstan and says he understands the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, he experienced similar feelings in his homeland. “I had a 0.1 percent chance of finding a good job in Kazakhstan because I am a Russian speaker.” In his free time under the supervision of cyber patriots, Sasha writes articles for an entertainment site. “This is not related to this project, I do not mix works,” he explains, just in case. From the story about himself, Sasha moves on to political enlightenment. “In our country, not everything is cool, but apologizing for being Russian is a little wrong. I myself was on the news agenda, I also saw the alley of angels (a memorial complex installed in 2015 in Donetsk in memory of the children who died during the military conflict. - Approx. ed.),I saw corpses, dismemberment, murdered children. I had nightmares after that. I'm not saying there is anything right here now. Nothing is right." Sasha repeats all the postulates known and spoken by the Russian authorities: Kyiv refused to comply with the Minsk agreements and increased armaments, Europe financed military supplies. “There would have been no “explosion” on the 24th, there would have been an “explosion” on the 30th, and not from our side. I don't have confirmation, but I think so. In the first week, no strikes were made on residential areas. And now ordinary people are not allowed to take refuge in a safe place. The national battalions close people in basements and apartments.”
I ask how he knows all this. Sasha is interrupted by Lyokha. He has been working for three shifts and is considered an experienced cyber warrior in the team, he himself looks for videos and throws them into the chat with a proposal on how they can be commented on. In social networks, his name is Matthew. He is under 40. Judging by the photographs, he is a former National Bolshevik. Lyokha says that he knows about everything from friends who were in the Donbas. “They, the Ukrainians, when they retreated, tried to make sure that there were as many victims as possible among the civilian population,” he says, answering a question about civilians allegedly locked in basements. - But the civilian population is forbidden to talk about it: they know that if they say, the guys from Azov will come.
Lyokha once talked with the opposition and became disillusioned with it: here, he says, Alexander Shurshev, being an activist of the Youth Yabloko, announced that he would take a Georgian surname in 2006 to support the expelled Georgians, but a month later he changed his decision and left his own. “It was significant for me: I watched how inconsistent they all were in the opposition. And then I saw how the Kremlin works. They are consistent, and this tenacity is attractive. You understand: if your interests coincide with the interests of the Kremlin, then you will not be thrown,” he says, sitting on a pink ottoman while looking at his laptop.
The resulting pause is interrupted by a guy, all clogged with tattoos: “Sorry, I'm listening to you and I understand that I'm completely off-topic. What to write something? Curator Sasha sighs: “Well… I also had people who wrote “Russia” with two mistakes. Well, look, they write there that in Russia no one supports the actions of the authorities, but on the contrary, you write. Needless to say, the majority. Here I support. You know me? So write: "And I have friends who support the government." Or where they say that they wish death on all Russians, you should write: “I am a tattoo artist, what does Ukraine and me have to do with it? I can at least stuff a swastika on your elbow.” Well, you can not write about the swastika. But the general message is this.”
I check with the curator, who is our employer after all? “He has nothing to do with the Ministry of Defense, they are just caring entrepreneurs,” Sasha replies. Masha enters the conversation at this moment. She is a little over 20, she is a student, at the same time she also earns money in SMM and at personal growth seminars. She seems to doubt that she came to the right job. Even before the start of the shift, she asked Sasha if she could not write in the comments that Navalny was a traitor if she did not consider him as such. The conversation was hypothetical. Sasha did not forbid but suggested that they think about whether the money that was sent to the oppositionist for donations had disappeared. Now Masha wonders why “flags with the letters Z” are placed everywhere, adding that the military theme, in general, has been implanted in us since childhood, if the boys didn’t run around the playgrounds with weapons and didn’t play tanks, maybe everything would be different. “Well… these paraphernalia are for convinced people. It makes me neither cold nor hot. And as a child… well, I liked weapons, no one dictated to me which toys to choose,” the curator answers, Lyokha supports him, and Masha no longer tries to argue.
In addition to the three of them, Yaroslav is sitting in the office (the whole working day he asked why there was no refrigerator with food in the office), Nikita (he is silent all the time) and Aleksey (he is also taciturn, described himself as a multifaceted personality - a Belarusian, was engaged in hacking and owned his own "shawarma").
After meeting everyone, they are added to the YouTube 1 Change Z chat. Videos and reports from patriotic channels are uploaded there. You need to comment on Dud’s new interview with historian Tamara Eidelman, speech by Advisor to the President of Ukraine Alexei Arestovich, news release of Present Time (recognized as a foreign agent in the Russian Federation), a video published by one of the Ukrainian bloggers, with Russian military equipment, Biden’s speech, video Ilya Varlamov. “You can throw claims at Varlamov, as in his videos in recent years he has shown Russian cities as gloomy garbage dumps,” Lyokha writes in the chat.
“Come here. Now I’ll throw reports from the Ministry of Defense to help, ”writes curator Sasha, dropping a link to the video of Current Time. A little later, he throws a screen into the chat: “Cyber troops on the stream of the present.” On the screen, users take turns quoting the stanzas of the Anthem of Russia. Sasha sends notes and pictures with the emblem of RIA FAN (a site that is part of the Patriot media group, the board of trustees of which is headed by Evgeny Prigozhin) to help with commenting. Another variant of the comment: the letter Z, made from emoji in the form of white, red, and blue hearts.
"All posts! Let's support the president,” Sasha sends a link to the chat to Vladimir Putin's speech at Luzhniki, published in the Cyber Front Z channel. “We pay special attention to young spectators who came to support the movement and to the concert.” Then he sends a screenshot of one of the comments, explaining that it is necessary to write in this way: “I am glad that young people celebrate this significant date! Indeed, the return of Crimea is a historic event!” There is also a new introductory one - you need to use the following statement for comments in other videos: “The weapons that the Westerners hand over to the Armed Forces of Ukraine do not reach the front, but are smuggled out to the border states of the EU. It falls into the hands of criminal gangs.” Then Lyokha writes: “Zelensky is on the air.” “Everything is there,” Sasha replies. Streams have time limits for comments,
When comments are written from one account, you can go to another - the curator sends additional passwords from google accounts. I get the names Stephen Seleznev and Melor Lovzansky. The backup mail for one of them has the fabrica domain, apparently with a hint of the already well-known “troll factory” brand.
After a busy day, Sasha asks to send him screenshots of comments and count the number. On the organization of the process, he adds: “You will be paid your salary on the 15th of each month. We sometimes film how we transfer money so that there are no complaints later. There is an opinion that the project can be completed by May 9, then the May shifts will be paid separately.”
The next day I miss my shift. In the afternoon, Alexey calls me: “I am the curator of the project. Tell me, will you continue? In applications that show how the phone number is recorded in people's notebooks on mobile, it is identified as Alexei Nekrylov. The IP of his full namesake on the first day had to be called at the checkpoint of Arsenal in order to be allowed to work. According to Fontanka, since 2016 Alexey Nekrylov has been an employee of Glavset LLC, Mixinfo, and Novinfo. In Novinfo, Viktor (more precisely, his full namesake) was also employed, who met the cyber warriors on the first day and introduced himself as a Tiktok curator.
It is these legal entities that the US authorities call involved in the Lakhta project, better known as the “troll factory”.
Trolls were first mentioned in 2013. This was preceded by a DDOS attack on a number of St. Petersburg media, including Fontanka, the creation of the Network Hamsters movement, the introduction of an employee of the PR department of the Concord group, who was associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, to the St. Petersburg editorial offices to search for compromising evidence. At the same time, journalists from Novaya Gazeta found an ad and tried to get a job in an office in Olgino, where they met the already mentioned employee of the Concorde group. In 2017, RBC magazine reported that the “Olginsky trolls” changed their office to a business center on Savushkina Street and acquired new resources - a network of information portals with an audience of 9 million people. In the same year, RBC journalists found out that during the US presidential election, an American department was opened in the “factory”, where about 100 people worked, in addition to posts on social networks, they also organized political protests. In 2018, the US Treasury placed resources associated with the "factory" on the sanctions list, accusing them of attempting to interfere in the 2016 American elections and stating that they belong to Yevgeny Prigozhin. He himself repeatedly denied this connection.
In addition to the surname Prigozhin, there may be another, no less famous story in this story: in 2014, Fontanka wrote that Alexander Yanukovych, the son of Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, moved to St. Petersburg and opened a business, he rented space at the St. Petersburg plant " Arsenal". However, this is nothing more than a coincidence.
In an official commentary, Alexey Nekrylov told Fontanka that he was not recruiting for social networks while confirming that he had an individual entrepreneur, but refused to name his occupation. He also stated that he did not know anything about the Novinfo, Glavset, and Mixinfo companies.
Ksenia Klochkova, Fontanka.ru