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New expose shows the extent of a Russian troll factory’s online influence

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A Russian troll farm spent more than $2 million and used dozens of employees to help foster division and influence the U.S. election over the course of two years, a new investigation by the Russian news agency RBC has discovered.

According to RBC, the notorious “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), based in St. Petersburg, had around 90 employees working in its “American department” during the height of 2016 election. They were responsible for 118 communities, mostly on Facebook, but also on Instagram and Twitter, which focused inciting racial animosity by posting material that supported Black Lives Matter or immigration activists.

The IRA functioned just like a normal company, with day-shifts, night-shifts and tiered salaries. Entry-level “Trolls”, the bottom rung of the factory, received 55,000 rubles a month (around $1,000) with premiums if they managed to incite particularly strong reactions in the social media communities. In comparison, those working in the American department were paid between 80,000 and 120,000 rubles. In total, the Internet Research Agency is estimated to have had around 250 employees – though numbers have dropped since the election, particularly in the American department.

The reach of the IRA, even without the widely-publicized $100,000 spent on Facebook ads, was massive. RBC estimates that during September 2016 there were an estimated 20-30 million hits a week on its 118 social media communities, a number which more than doubled to 70 million during October. That’s in addition to the estimated 10 million people who Facebook said saw the Russian ads on its social network – which some analysts say could have actually reached up to 70 million people.

Despite Mark Zuckerberg saying after the election that it was “crazy” to suggest that Facebook helped elect Donald Trump, the company — after dragging its heels somewhat — has resolved to take a stronger stance against Kremlin interference. “Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened,” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told Axios news last week. “It’s not just that we apologize. We’re angry, we’re upset. But what we really owe the American people is determination to do a better job of preventing foreign meddling.”

But the creativity and technical know-how of the Russian trolls suggests that Facebook, and other social media giants like Twitter and Instagram, have a lot of catching up to do. The RBC report notes how some of their troll factory tweets were “authentic” enough to be picked up by more reputable media outlets, like the BBC, USA Today and Al Jazeera. Sources also said that the IRA spent around 200,000 rubles each month on IT – including proxy servers, new IP addresses and new SIM cards – which have enabled trolls to skirt Facebook’s previous attempts to block them.

At the heart of the IRA’s American department was a simple goal; undermine the U.S. by fostering divisive social topics that focused on race, immigration, gun rights and other controversial topics – on both sides of the aisle. The use of social media groups like “BlackMattersUS”, “Stop All Invaders,” and “SecuredBorders” didn’t directly Donald Trump, but helped create an environment in which his rhetoric was more easily received.

The IRA spent $80,000 hire local American activists to stage rallies across 40 different cities in the US. According to RBC, none of the activists hired over the internet knew they were supporting  a Russian organization. One of those was an anti-Muslim rally in Twin Falls, Idaho.

“Every country has their own kind of organization that defends their national interests and distributed civil unrest,” one former IRA troll told Russian news network Dozhd earlier this week. “This is information war and it’s official.”

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