Commanding the Trolls


Thanks to a series of journalistic investigations, many of which have been carried out by Russian reporters, it is already well known that employees at the so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg receive instructions about which messages they should push in social media and online debates.

Examples of such instructions have now been published in written form in the new indictment from the U.S. Department of Justice, which charges a named employee at the “troll factory” with attempted meddling in the upcoming U.S. midterms elections.

The new documentation confirms and fleshes out the instruction system and the fact that the “troll factory” is still active. The evidence also showcases the “troll factory’s” activities as a strategic communications campaign with emphasis on target group awareness.

Investigations carried out by Russian journalists have played a key role in describing the activities of the “troll factory”.

“Special prosecutor Mueller is a puppet of the establishment”

The new indictment includes a series of internal communications in which employees at the “troll factory” receive guidance and instructions for their activities in social media. A central observation is that the “troll factory” aims at diversifying its messages for different target groups, as e.g. this communication shows:

“Just like ordinary Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, colored LGBT people are very sensitive towards #whiteprivilege and they react to posts and pictures that favor white people…. Unlike with conservatives, infographics works well among LGBT and their liberal allies, and it does work very well. However, the content must be simple to understand, consisting of short text in large font and a colorful picture.”

Target group differentiation combined with internal logistical considerations are apparent in the following communication:

“Posting can be problematic due to time difference, but if you make your re-posts in the morning St. Petersburg time, it works well with liberals – LGBT groups are often active at night. Also, the conservative can view your re-post when they wake up in the morning if you post it before you leave in the evening St. Petersburg time.”

In another communication, a manager suggests that the “trolls” should share a specific news article about Senator John McCain with the following emphasis:

“Brand McCain as an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly. Emphasize that John McCain’s pathological hatred towards Donald Trump and towards all his initiatives crosses all reasonable borders and limits. State that dishonorable scoundrels, such as McCain, immediately aim to destroy all the conservative voters’ hopes as soon as Trump tries to fulfill his election promises and tries to protect the American interests.”

Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is subject to another internal “troll factory” instruction quoted in the indictment:

“Special prosecutor Mueller is a puppet of the establishment. List scandals that took place when Mueller headed the FBI. Direct attention to the listed examples. State the following: It is a fact that the Special Prosecutor who leads the investigation against Trump represents the establishment: a politician with proven connections to the U.S. Democratic Party who says things that should either remove him from his position or disband the entire investigation commission. Summarize with a statement that Mueller is a very dependent and highly politicized figure; therefore, there will be no honest and open results from the investigation. Emphasize that the work of this commission is damaging to the country and is aimed to declare impeachment of Trump. Emphasize that it cannot be allowed, no matter what.”

Trolling and the spread of disinformation aim at destabilising societal structures and weakening a counterpart.

Intensified trolling operations

Another question which the new indictment throws light on is whether the “troll factory” has become less active as a result of the publicity to which it has been exposed.

That does not seem to be the case. According to the indictment, the “troll factory’s” budget for the first half of 2018 was almost as large as the budget for each of the two preceding years (2016 and 2017). This intensification of the “troll factory’s” activities also suggests that its managers and stakeholders have so far not evaluated its activities as a failure.

Part of a media control system

The evidence also demonstrates some overlaps between the way the “troll factory’s” output is managed and the guidelines that are used for controlling traditional Kremlin-loyal media, such as Russian national television.

Russian television also receives policy guidelines from the Kremlin, the so-called “temniki“, which are typically kept in oral form, trickling down from the political level through media management to editorial and journalistic staff. This system has also been exposed when whistle blowers have brought forward examples of the “temniki” in written form.

The Kremlin ties

The indictment also reconfirms that the “troll factory” belongs to a leading Russian businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and that his business has ties to the Russian government i.a. by being “contracted by the Russian government to provide catering for army personnel and school children”.

The previous US indictment, published in July 2018, showed how Russian military intelligence officers created false online personas and websites in order to stage the release of stolen election-related documents’.

Top image: Header from the new U.S. indictment.

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Cases in the EUvsDisinfo database focus on messages in the international information space that are identified as providing a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality and spread key pro-Kremlin messages. This does not necessarily imply, however, that a given outlet is linked to the Kremlin or editorially pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform. EUvsDisinfo publications do not represent an official EU position, as the information and opinions expressed are based on media reporting and analysis of the East Stratcom Task Force.

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