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“The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” the opposition activist Leonid Volkov told me.
For six months, starting in the fall of 2014, I investigated a shadowy online Russian propaganda operation called the Internet Research Agency.
The agency has been widely reported in Russian media to be the brainchild of Evgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and ally of Vladimir Putin.
It is used by Kremlin apparatchiks at every level of government in Russia; wherever politics are discussed online, one can expect a flood of comments from paid trolls.
When I began researching the story, I assumed that paid trolls worked by relentlessly spreading their message and thus indoctrinating Russian Internet users.
The agency is what is known in Russia as a “troll farm,” a nickname given to outfits that operate armies of sock-puppet social-media accounts, in order to create the illusion of a rabid grass-roots movement.
Trolling has become a key tool in a comprehensive effort by Russian authorities to rein in a previously freewheeling Internet culture, after huge anti-Putin protests in 2011 were organized largely over social media.