The headquaretrs in St Petersburg  Picture: Dmitry Lovetsky / AP Source: AP


Recently, I wrote about click farms, where fake friends and their likes are manufactured in sweatshops.

The New York Times has just published a story that certainly tops that: The “troll house” report by Adrian Chen:

The Columbian Chemicals [deadly explosion] hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention.

The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

Yes. It was one of several documented examples of utterly fake news which originate in a shadowy organization in Russia, Internet Research Agency. It’s a troll farm whose hundreds of employees post sophisticated false news to the Internet. The fakers astutely play on legitimate current concerns (ebola virus and police violence against African Americans also featured, for example). Many people who would not fall for “Mars invades!” thus take the claims seriously.

But what’s the motive?

Much of the false news posted to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter via hidden IP addresses aims at putting the United States or the Ukraine in a bad light. There are other nakedly political motives that raise questions about Russian government involvement:

Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.

It is relevant that Russia has instituted significant internal control over the internet, and Chen notes,

All of this has contributed to a dawning sense, among the Russian journalists and activists I spoke with, that the Internet is no longer a natural medium for political opposition.] [Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.

Some of us wonder if “net neutrality” will end up amounting to something similar— though maybe with more police and bureaucrats, and fewer trolls.

Incidentally, the trolls ended up tarring Chen himself as a neo-Nazi, through what sounds like an elaborate setup. Fortunately, no one believes them—this time.

But don’t believe me. Read it for yourself. It’s probably not false news.  

Inside the troll house, they say:


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...