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November 6, 2017 No.
7164

Russian Media Outlet RBC Publishes Investigative Report: How The 'Troll Factory' Worked During The U.S. Election

On October 17, 2017, the Russian RBC magazine published an investigative report on attempts by the "troll factory" in St. Petersburg to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.[1] RBC sources close to the "troll factory" management insisted that "there was no direct cooperation with people from the [Russian] presidential administration."

Furthermore, an RBC source close to the "troll factory" management stated: "Could we influence the election? Of course not! Could we win over the swing states to Trump's cause? Maybe, but we were shocked by the results ourselves. Why would we need all this? It's pure fun." In any event the expose of the troll factory is a step beyond the usual blanket denials of meddling. It mentions budgets and ties to business figures. If ties to the campaign were coincidental, there was definitely an attempt to fish in the troubled waters of the American racial divide.

Below are excerpts from RBC's investigation:[2]

BlackMattersUS Community Has Its Roots In Savushkina Street N. 55, St. Petersburg, Russia

"[On] October 2016, [in] the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. On a sunny Saturday, several dozen people went into a central park. But [they came] not for a walk, but for a rally of the Afro-American population against 'police violence'. The protesters chanted slogans near a fountain in the park, and then peacefully walked to the entrance of the local police department; on the porch, they shouted 'Black Lives Matter!' several times – a popular slogan and the name of an organization defending the rights of black people in the U.S.

"The event in Charlotte was promoted in Facebook on behalf of the BlackMattersUS community, which has nothing in common with Black Lives Matters. This organization's ties extend far beyond the U.S. borders – to 55 Savushkina Street, St. Petersburg, Russia.


(Source: Blackmattersus.com)


Charlotte, North Carolina, October 22, 2016. (Source: Blackmattersus.com)

'By Mid-2015, The Trolls Factory Had Expanded To 800–900 People'

"This address in the Primorsky district of the city became a household name long ago. About three years ago, a few hundred people moved into the four-story building on Savushkina Street; their major task was propaganda of patriotic values. The work on this 'troll factory' (hereafter 'factory'), reportedly created and sponsored by a St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, came down to writing non-stop comments under assumed names in blogs and social networks on the Russian Internet – in defense of the current authorities, combined with criticism of the oppositionists, or in support of politically palatable public events.

"Soon, the 'factory' began to outgrow its initially primitive work methods. Approximately at the same time, first portals appeared that later became the nucleus of the organization's media part — the so called 'media factory', an entire patriotic holding, that the RBC magazine wrote about in March 2017 and whose readership now numbers over 50 million per month. After the article about the 'media factory', the holding's major outlet — the Federal News Agency (FAN) — registered the Fabricmedia.ru portal, as follows from the data of the WhoIs service.

"By mid-2015, the 'factory' had expanded to 800–900 people, and the arsenal of tools became more extensive: videos, infographics, memes, reports, news, interviews, analytical materials, and its own internet communities — all came into play. And already in January 2017, the Internet Research Agency, one of the first supposed legal entities of the 'troll factory' (ceased its activities in 2015; removed from the register in late 2016) was mentioned, together with the RT TV channel, in the American special services' report about Russia's intervention in the U.S. presidential election. Soon after Donald Trump's election, several committees were set up in the Congress [sic probably meaning the House of Representatives] and the Senate that are conducting investigations of this incident.

"American corporations — Facebook, Twitter, Google — are cooperating with the authorities, looking for the trolls' footprints in their platforms. Western mass media — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, The Daily Beast and others — publish, almost daily, new facts about possible Russian interference in the presidential campaign: they find new communities that worked before and after the election, announcements and events connected to them. Even specific illustrations and videos, linked to blocked communities, can become the basis for an article.

"RBC magazine has conducted its own investigation: we managed to find and confirm the involvement of employees of the building on Savushkina Street in at least 120 communities and topic-specific accounts, analyze their content, and calculate the overall expenditures for this campaign. Is the troll factory's scale of work abroad commensurate with the excitement caused in the U.S. by this story?


Savushkina Street N. 55, St. Petersburg. (Source: Yandex.Maps)

'When Facebook Blocks Troll Accounts, The IT Department Of The Agency Buys Proxy Servers… And The Work Begins Anew"

"[It is] spring of 2015; a few people are gathered around the monitor. On the computer's screen is a rather monotonous picture: people come to a New York City square, look around, stare into their phones, look around again, and leave after a while.

"A few days before that, an event was promoted on Facebook, targeted at New Yorkers; the essence of the event was getting a free hot dog — one only had to come to an appointed place at an appointed time. Those who came did not get any hot dogs. But other people enjoyed themselves at their expense: with the help of city street webcams, people in St. Petersburg, in an office on the second floor of the 'trolls' den, were watching the events in the square online.

"The action was meant to test the workability of a hypothesis: whether it is possible to organize an event in U.S. cities remotely. 'It was only a capability test, an experiment. And it was successful', recalls one of the 'factory' employees, not concealing his elation. From that point on, i. e. almost 18 months prior to the U.S. presidential elections, the full-fledged work of the 'trolls' in American communities began.

"In March 2015, on the web portal SuperJob, there appeared a vacancy for an 'internet operator (night)'. The office in the Primorsky district was looking for an employee [offering] a salary of 40–50 thousand rubles [around 678-847 U.S. Dollars] [to work] a 2-2 shift schedule (21:00 to 09:00); job duties included writing 'informational, analytical, and news' materials 'on designated subjects'. The list of requirements for the job contained 'fluent English', including 'confident command' of written language, and creativity.

"The vacancy was published by a St. Petersburg company Internet Research (it became part of Teka in late 2015): a former police chief of the city's Moskovsky district, Mikhail Bystrov, was then registered as the company owner. The same person was the CEO of the Internet Research Agency and is still running Glavset, registered at 55 Savushkina Street (data of the SPARK-Interfax information service). The announcement on SuperJob describes the employer — Internet Research — as a 'large and stable company' with up to 50 employees.

"Adverts like this were used to recruit people who undertook to work with American communities in real time, as an ex-employee of the 'factory' told RBC. Another ex-employee adds that it was since early spring 2015 that they began 'being issued assignments to discredit some candidates' in the U.S. presidential election.

"But working in the network communities opened by the 'factory' soon became impossible: on 2 June 2015, an article titled The Agency by Adrian Chen was published in New York Times Magazine, and the day after the publication Facebook blocked all the factory's English-language groups, accounts of fictitious administrators, and even, partially, the personal pages of Savushkina Street office employees, as our source recalls. But the trolls were seasoned fighters: they went for another lap, and as a result, most of the communities suspended in August 2017 were those created after the publication of Chen's investigation.

"When Facebook blocks troll accounts, the IT department of the agency buys proxy servers, distributes new IP addresses and virtual operating systems, and the work begins anew, the ex-employee of the 'factory' tells us. New SIM cards or 'cloud' numbers are purchased as well, new payment accounts are opened, and sometimes documentation packages for registering accounts, adds our source at the 'factory'. Up to 200 thousand rubles [around 3.400 U.S. Dollars] a month are spent on IT-maintenance, another source, familiar with the organization's activities, informs us.

"A much larger expenditure item is salaries. Within a year, by summer 2016, the number of employees in the 'American Department' of the Savushkina Street office almost tripled and reached 80–90. It is about one tenth of the overall number of people linked to the 'factory'.

27-Year-Old Azerbaijani-Born Jeyhun Aslanov Is The Head Of The 'American Department'

"'They always know themselves what to do. All that is left to do is listen to their progress reports and tell them they need to work better', this is how our source in Prigozhin's entourage responds to our question about the 'factory' management structure. Inside the organization, a classical pattern is used: one executive director and several department supervisors. Those in charge of different departments do not interfere with the work of neighboring sectors, sometimes they do not even know each other and do not know who does what, says our source familiar with the organization's work.

"The de facto CEO of the entire 'factory' is, as the RBC magazine wrote earlier, 31-year-old Mikhail Burchik, previously the owner of his own IT-companies VkAp.ru and GaGaDo, and publisher of municipal district newspapers. Burchik himself never confirmed officially that he was in charge of the 'factory' or worked in the Savushkina Street office, but in a conversation with RBC magazine he said that he was a consultant with media outlets 'as an expert on the promotion and development of internet projects'. Burchik has personal contacts with about 20–30 people who, in turn, supervise the staff of 10 to 100, depending on the department, according to the description of work structure provided by our source in the 'factory'.

"All the RBC sources unanimously name the 27-year-old Azerbaijani-born Jeyhun Aslanov as the head of the 'American Department'. He himself denied it in a conversation with an RBC correspondent. But, in addition to the words of our three sources — a current 'factory' employee, an ex-employee of the 'American Department', and a source familiar with the organization's activities, — RBC has a message from a chat on Telegram, written by Aslanov and dedicated to the interim results of the factory's work in the U.S.

"Aslanov came to St. Petersburg in late 2000s from the town of Ust-Kut, Irkutsk region, to study economics in the Hydrometeorological University. In 2009, he spent a few months in the U.S., visiting New York and Boston, and in 2011 he went to London, as follows from open information on Aslanov's page in VKontakte. Nowadays, the alleged head of the foreign department of the 'factory' owns two companies specializing in advertising and internet. One of them, Azimut, was created in June 2016, i.e. three months before the U.S. election, and generated proceeds of 29 million rubles over six months (data of SPARK-Interfax). The 'factory' practices registering legal entities to its own employees: thus, several news portals of the 'media factory' were registered to their journalists (for example, Narodnye Novosti and Economica Segodnya).

"Aslanov himself told us that Azimut provides account promotion services on social media platforms; he even offered our correspondent help in promoting his personal pages. Aslanov himself, in addition to a profile in VKontakte, had a Facebook account, but now it is suspended. The American corporation did not answer our question on whether the account was closed as part of the campaign on purging the troll footprints. Aslanov refrained from discussing the suspension of his page.

"A significant part of the content in English-speaking communities was published via delayed posting — in particular, on Facebook. About ten people out of the overall staff of the 'foreign department' worked night shifts, others worked regular shifts (five work days, two days off). The salary fund of the 'American Department' on Savushkina Street totals 60–70 million rubles, or about $1 million per annum: lower-level trolls get about 55 thousand rubles (plus bonuses for reactions by community members), administrators — 80–90 thousand rubles, the management — from 120 thousand rubles. These are the figures provided by the former and current employees of the 'factory'.

"All the employees are hired officially by one of the organization's legal entities — there are about ten of them. The profits of the Glavset company, registered in 55 Savushkina Street, was 86.4 million rubles in 2016 — while the prime cost of the sold 'goods, products, work, services' was 83.1 million rubles (almost $1.4 million; the data of SPARK-Interfax).

"Work in the 'American Department' was based on 'creative input' or in so-called clusters, says our source in the 'factory'. In the first case, some people stood out from the crowd; people who are better at inventing and creating their own content — for example, pictures and memes for the Californian image sharing service Imgur (over 30 million users). As for 'clusters', they refer to thematic communities that have become popular on several platforms at the same time — for example, BlackMattersUS. One Facebook group could have up to five administrator accounts — for example, Stop A.I. was moderated by Bertha Malone and David Waddell.

"The RBC magazine has a list of almost 120 communities and topic-specific accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were in use until August 2017. Their authenticity is confirmed by screenshots of posts made to groups and specific accounts from the internal administrator panel (blocked as well). The involvement of trolls in this list was also confirmed by our source close to the 'factory' management. In addition, over half of the Twitter accounts are registered to numbers starting with +7, as follows from the data of the password retrieval service.

"The RBC magazine also asked linguists to analyze seven posts from the communities featured in the list. In many cases, the authors of the posts were Russian — 'sufficient proof of that' was found by Ronald Meyer, an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University and his colleague, director of the Russian language studies program, Alla Smyslova. They pointed out direct calques from Russian (for example, 'sitting on welfare”') and punctuation mistakes like commas in front of 'that', absence of articles, and 'odd' phrasing in general.

"At the same time, the executive director of the Star Talk foreign language school Yekaterina Chegnova and English teacher Dmitry Bulkin note that the posts are written in 'quite fluent English', which allows us to reach the conclusion that the authors are native speakers. This could be partially linked to the fact that the trolls occasionally borrowed texts for their posts from real Americans.

"Fewer than 100 people created and posted over 1 thousand items of content per week. The target audience reached for example, in September 2016 averaged about 20-30 million. How did the trolls manage to interest users with the 'factory' content?

'The American Content Of The 'Factory' Was Not So Much Support Of A Specific [U.S.] Candidate But Rather Discussion Of 'Sensitive Social Themes''

"On 28 February 2017, the senior adviser to the U.S. president, Kellyanne Conway, sat on a sofa tucking her legs beneath her during an official reception in the Oval Office. Her photo, taken at the moment when President Trump and leaders of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) were posing before cameras in the background, caused an uproar on social networks. Conway was accused of disrespect towards the Oval Office, the American people and the president, as reported by BBC.

"On the same day, blogger Jenna Abrams posted two Tweets — her response to the criticism of Conway's behavior. One of them contained a photo of former president Barack Obama propping his heels up on the office desk, the other — another ex-president, Bill Clinton, hugging Monica Lewinsky. Both pictures had been taken in the Oval Office. These two posts had over 1 thousand retweets and almost 1.3 million likes; the British Independent cited the post in its article. RBC found Abrams's posts on the websites of Aljazeera, Elle, Business Insider, BBC, USA Today, Yahoo, etc. Currently, the account @Jenn_Abrams (registered to a number with [Russia's] country code +7) and the site Jennabrams.com are blocked.

"The 'factory' had dozens of accounts like 'Jenna Abrams'. About ten employees of the 'American Department' worked with Twitter: their task was not the election race as such, but creating accounts and organizing flash mobs that would be taken up by large media companies and key media persons, says the 'factory' employee.

"As an example of a successful project, he cites the #2016ElectionIn3Words event, which allegedly started on November 7, on the eve of the election: the hashtag asked Twitter users to describe in three words their memories of the candidates' election campaigns and their expectations. Our source claims that the hashtag became a worldwide trend, and on November 8, the TV show @midnight (on the U.S. Comedy Central cable channel until August 2017) used the same hashtag on air — so that TV viewers joined the game as well. The RBC magazine could not find Twitter posts with the #2016ElectionIn3Words tag from November 7.

"Flash mobs were organized by the joint efforts of several accounts — for example, @WorldOfHashtags, @GiselleEvns, @ChrixMorgan, @LoraGreeen, etc. (all currently blocked), as the anonymous Mort d'Trolls wrote on his Twitter page. The 'factory' employee also told RBC about a number of 'central' accounts used for seeding and promotion.

"But the majority of the 'foreign department' employees in St. Petersburg did not concern themselves with game hashtags and flash mobs, but with quite serious topics. According to our source close to the 'factory' management, almost all the American content of the 'factory' was not so much support of a specific candidate but rather discussion of 'sensitive social themes': allegedly, they fit in with Trump's rhetoric only incidentally — our interlocutor calls it 'correlation' and not direct support. 'There was no goal to support Trump. All current problems were directly related to the activities of the party currently in power [the Democrats]. Hillary [Clinton] was its representative, and as such, she was to blame as well', another source says. An RBC analysis of hundreds of posts has shown that Clinton featured in troll posts far more frequently than Trump.

"'Share if you believe that Muslims did not do 9/11. Let's see how many people know the truth' (United Muslims of America, September 11, 2016). 'Clinton insists: 'We have not lost a single American in Libya'. Four flag-covered coffins were not empty, Hillary' (Being Patriotic, a post about Clinton's relation to the national tragedy, from September 8, 2016). In one of its statements, Facebook said that most of the blocked ads 'range across the ideological spectrum', touching upon topics like LGBT, race, immigrant issues, and attitude to firearms.

"The overall number of subscribers to around 120 blocked communities and accounts is nearly 6 million people, over half of which were on Facebook, and about one third — on Instagram, RBC magazine has estimated. We have divided the blocked groups according to their topics and found out that most frequently, the trolls fomented the conflicts between different ethnic groups, mostly related to black problems, as well as political issues. It was to promote these topics that the advertising budget was used on social media.


Kellyanne Conway (Source: Rbc.ru)

'Half The Budget Went To Posts Touching Upon Racial Issues, A Little Less — To Political Ones'

"'I was banned on TV because I was too cruel. Like and share if you grew up watching me on TV, have a gun and haven't shot or killed anyone!'— this post appeared on March 9 in the South United community. In the center was a picture of a cartoon character Yosemite Sam. The post was viewed by over 17 million users, number of reactions to it exceeded 1.6 million, only 3 thousand people hid this post in their feed, and nine marked it as spam, as follows from the screenshot.

"There were only a few 'factory' posts in Facebook with a reach like this: for example, over 17.2 million viewed the post about veterans and refugees in the Being Patriotic community. Only 20 posts at best reached the mark of 1 million users; similar figures are true of Twitter, as follows from the analysis conducted by RBC. There are hundreds of posts with tens of thousands of views, but the lion's share of posts collected 1 thousand views at most.

"From June 2015 to May 2017, the 'factory' spent at least $100 thousand on the promotion of over 3 thousand political ads targeted at American voters (on Instagram — less than 5% of the money), said Alex Stamos, Facebook's chief security officer, during his speech in the Congress. Another 2.2 thousand ads (with $50 thousand spent on them) are suspect, he added. On Twitter, which, following in Facebook's footsteps, closed 22 accounts and found 179 more, no ads have been found so far. Google has roughly estimated 'tens of thousands of dollars' in ads on all its platforms, and connects them to the work of the 'factory', writes the Washington Post, citing its sources.

"The total budget for promotion on social media was about $5 thousand per month, i.e. about $120 thousand for two years; this follows from the internal statistical data of the 'factory' that is available to RBC. These figures are confirmed by our source inside the organization. 'Factory' employees promoted posts of at least 40 communities: about half the budget went to posts touching upon racial issues, a little less — to political ones.

"RBC sources claim that no ads were bought in Twitter, just like no ads were bought in Tumblr or Imgur. 'We spent a little to promote Twitter accounts — wrote some bots to put on some bulk, but those were trifling expenses', specifies a 'factory' employee. According to him, no bots were used in Facebook communities, because 'there was no point in it, real people were needed', but RBC could not verify that. The fact that reposts had been made by real users and not bots was also mentioned by The New York Times. Our interlocutors from the 'factory' also deny placing ads on Google platforms, only specifying that 'there were some tests but they did not go any further'.

"About 10 million unique users from among U.S. residents have seen at least one ad created by the organizations connected to the 'factory', according to Facebook statistical data. The office on Savushkina Street prefers to measure its success in terms of reach: in August 2016, the minimal number was 15 million per week; in October 2016, the highest bar was cleared — 70 million views per week, as shown by the internal statistical data of the 'factory', obtained by RBC in early 2017. Facebook said in one of its statements that approximately 25% ads from 'factory'-linked organizations had never been shown to anyone because of their irrelevance to the audience.

"Average СРМ (cost per mil) in the U.S. is $5–7, therefore the campaign reach of 10 million people is not very extensive; one could do 30–40% more, thinks Sergey Yefimov, chief customer officer of OMD Resolution. Especially since the audience usually reacts much better to politically motivated posts than to usual brand advertising, which means that CPM can be even lower — $2–3, adds the expert. The CEO of Agency One Touch, Anatoly Yemelyanov, says that the price of one subscriber on Facebook varies from $0.5 to $2, but if there are good creative campaign ideas, 'the cost of recruiting comes down to one cent per subscriber'.

"At the same time, a significant part of the advertising budget was not directed at the promotion of groups as such but at scaling the hot dog experiment.

Long-Distance Rally

"In May 2016, a well-known activist and a co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Micah White, received an e-mail from a man named Yan Davis. He introduced himself as a freelance reporter of the BlackMattersUS website, dedicated to problems of the black community, and asked for a phone interview. The activist agreed, provided his number, but the conversation that took place as a result seemed strange to him. 'The call quality was bad, and the interviewer did not seem to be a native English speaker', said the activist, who was described by the Esquire magazine in 2014 as one of 'the most influential people under 35'.

"Currently, the interview with White can only be read on the BlackMattersUS site — the community's pages in Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with a total number of subscribers exceeding 250 thousand have been blocked (only Tumblr is accessible). 'Yan Davis's' Facebook account has been deactivated as well. Our correspondent sent him an e-mail to the same address that he used to write to White, but the 'freelance reporter' did not open it (data of the Readnotify service). The @BlackMattersUS Twitter account was registered to a telephone number starting with +7. According to our source close to the 'factory', interaction with various American activists was the job of the same people who worked night shifts answering comments in groups.

"Unlike most of communities managed by the 'factory', BlackMattersUS posed as a non-commercial news portal with its own newsroom. Anyone who wished could also support the fighters against racism by sending a donation via PayPal to a wallet connected to a Gmail address with username xtimwalters. According to the website, six more people worked in the newsroom in addition to 'Yan Davis'. Our correspondent found the accounts of two more 'employees' on Twitter: one of them had been blocked; the other had not been updated since 2016.

"BlackMattersUS, 44.2% of whose viewers enter the site via search engines (data provided by Similarweb), managed to create an entire portfolio of interviews with famous black rights activists. In addition to White, the representatives of the site talked to the legendary member of the Black Panthers movement Ericka Huggins, mother of Ramarley Graham — a black teenager shot by police in New York, professor of Columbia University and godfather of the rapper Tupac Shakur — Jamal Joseph, and Ramona Africa — member of the Philadelphia black movement MOVE, one of the few survivors of an unprecedented raid of the local police in 1985 (the law enforcers dropped a bomb from a helicopter on the organization's headquarters).

"Communication did not usually stop after the interview. White, for example, received from 'Yan Davis' several letters asking him to support BlackMattersUS events — for example, a flash mob in support of Ramona Africa's comrades who found themselves in jail. The request boiled down to publishing photos and videos on social media demanding their release.

"Additionally, White was asked to spread information via his accounts about a rally that was supposed to take place near the criminal court building in New Orleans on 14 October 2016: on that day, the case of Jerome Smith, a black man who was given a life sentence for murder in 1986, was to be reviewed. The BlackMattersUS site states that according to plan, the protesters were supposed to go to the hearing after the picketing. RBC was unable to ascertain whether anybody came to the rally: the event's Facebook page is blocked.

"There are more testimonies about the rally against police brutality— the one in October 2016 in Charlotte two weeks before the US presidential election, which we mentioned in the beginning of this text. Shortly before the event, BlackMattersUS representatives contacted a local activist, Conrad James, leader of the Living Ultra-Violet movement, via Facebook. People from the site asked him for help in organizing the event, James told RBC. He agreed, invited other local black and other minority rights activists, and even took a loudspeaker with him to the event.

"The rally started with a delay: BlackMattersUS representatives were late, since they were coming to Charlotte from St. Louis. The event was started by a woman called Stephanie Williamson, who introduced herself as a coordinator from BlackMattersUS, as follows from the video on the organization's website. In addition to Williamson, a black man from the organization was present at the rally; James did not remember his name.

"A few weeks after Trump was elected, another rally organized by James together with BlackMattersUS took place in Charlotte, the activist told us; a few dozen people opposing the newly elected president came to it with a slogan 'Charlotte against Trump'. People on Savushkina Street explain their abrupt shifts in political position by their 'indifference' towards those who rule somebody else's country.

"All in all, in the years 2016–2017 in the U.S., about ten events took place under the auspices of BlackMattersUS, as our source familiar with the factory's activities, tells us. His words are confirmed by the data from the organization's internal event reports; they are illustrated by photographs that have never been published before (they are at RBC's disposal). Local people who participated in the work of BlackMattersUS did not know that trolls from Savushkina Street were behind this organization, say the current 'factory' employee and the ex-employee of the 'American Department'. Both insist: there were no business trips from St. Petersburg to the U.S.


(Source: Blackmattersus.com/about-us)

 


Rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. November 19, 2016. (Source: Charlotteobserver.com)

'Trolls… Managed To Form A List Of About 100 Unsuspecting Local Activists Who Ultimately Helped Them In Organizing Offline Events'

"In early January 2017, a New York martial arts teacher Omowale Adewale received an Instagram message from a man named Taylor. He wrote that he represented a non-commercial organization BlackFist and was ready to sponsor free self-defense courses for anyone who wished. The athlete agreed: from January to May, about ten classes took place in Queens and Brooklyn clubs. Then Taylor disappeared and classes stopped, as the athlete has told RBC. And in September, Facebook and Instagram blocked BlackFist accounts on suspicion of ties to the 'factory'.

"Five self-defense classes worked under the auspices of BlackFist: one each in Lansing (Michigan), Los Angeles and Tampa (Florida), and two in New York. Instructors announced weekly classes on their Instagram pages; the period of announcement posting is similar — January to May. Thus, in April, 20 training sessions took place, which were attended by about 130 people, as follows from the internal 'factory' report. However, some classes in New York were not attended at all, complained Adewale in his conversation with RBC. According to photographs published by instructors on Instagram, the classes were mostly attended by black teenagers and women.

"'Taylor' paid Adewale $320 a month on average: at first, the money came via Google Wallet, then via PayPal, but the name of the sender did not coincide with the one given before, the coach remembers. He never saw the sponsor himself, but once, according to him, a man from BlackFist came to his class with a question on how to organize similar classes in Brooklyn. An instructor from Lansing, Donte Adams, also told us that BlackFist representatives contacted him via the internet. In his Instagram announcements, Adams always pointed out that BlackFist was the self-defense classes sponsor (in our conversation, the athlete did not mention the sum).

"On the whole, the trolls who introduced themselves by fictitious names of social media group moderators managed to form a list of about 100 unsuspecting local activists who ultimately helped them in organizing offline events.

"Via the 'factory' communities, about 40 rallies and events of various kinds were organized in the US, as follows from the internal reports of the organization. Information about some of these events made it into the American mass media after Facebook delivered the data on blocked ads and accounts to the Congress. For example, in August 2016, Being Patriotic invited via Facebook people from 17 Florida cities to an event in support of Trump, at that time still only a presidential candidate: at least two of the events took place, as stated by the reporters of The Daily Beast in an investigation of Being Patriotic.

"The 'factory's expenses in paying for the local organizers' work (flights to cities, printing costs, technical equipment, etc.) were about 200 thousand rubles per month, says our source familiar with the 'factory' activities. Thus, the total expenditure for two years could amount to 5 million rubles, or about $80 thousand, — a little less than expenses on promotion on social media.

Source Close To The Trolls Factory: 'Could We Influence The Election? Of Course Not… Why Would We Need All This? It's Pure Fun'

"Currently, about 50 people are working in the 'American Department' on Savushkina Street: all these nameless employees feature in American press publications as practically the main driving force behind Trump's victory in the election.

"Representatives of Facebook, (for which the trolls' expenses of $100 thousand represent less than 0.0004% of its annual ad income), after blocking the 'factory' communities, announced the creation of an entire department for fighting fake news. And on the eve of yet another of its appearances before Congress, Facebook placed ad pages in The New York Times and Washington Post about its role in the 2016 election, mentioning the case of 3 thousand 'factory' ads.

"Twitter representatives were scolded by the American officials for failing to understand the importance of the issue after their report to the Congress. Google, at the moment of publication of this issue, has not spoken publicly about the results of its internal investigation; the company did not answer our question on whether the data will be delivered to relevant committees of the U.S. parliament. A representative of Twitter refused to confirm whether the network had indeed closed over 50 accounts, some of which were registered to numbers with the country code +7, pointing out that those were personal data.

"In a conversation with the RBC magazine, the press secretary of [Virginia Senator] Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has 'so far' declined to comment on the possible consequences of the 'factory' investigation for the American segment of Facebook and Twitter. Official representatives of the head of the Congress Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, and his deputy Adam Schiff did not answer our queries.

"President Trump himself twice mentioned the scandal connected to the purchase of political ads on Facebook. Both times his Tweets boiled down to pointing out what should have been done instead of reviewing the content of ads brought to the Congress and then to the Senate. Trump never spoke to the point on the issue of possible intervention of Russian trolls in the election.

"President Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on this issue: 'We do not know who places adverts on Facebook and in what way, we never did it, Russia has never been a part of that', he stated during a briefing with journalists. Our sources close to the 'factory' management insist that 'there was no direct cooperation with people from the presidential administration'. A query of the RBC magazine addressed to Prigozhin remained unanswered.

"In the meantime, the 'American Department' continues working, say the former and the current employees. From the building on 55 Savushkina Street, English speaking communities with an overall readership of about 1 million are still being administered, claims an employee of the organization. Our source close to the 'factory' management insists: 'Could we influence the election? Of course not! Could we win over the swing states to Trump's cause? Maybe, but we were shocked by the results ourselves. Why would we need all this? It's pure fun'."

 

 

[2] Rbc.ru/magazine October 17, 2017. Authors: Polina Rusyaeva, Andrey Zakharov.