Insiders: Russia troll farm zanier than indictment says
Moscow – A Clinton-Obama sex tape using body doubles. A Facebook page promoting Texas independence riddled with grammatical mistakes. Islamic State anthems blasting out during the nightshift.
The U.S. indictment centered on a Russian troll farm only scratches the surface of the St. Petersburg agency that allegedly produced online content to sway the 2016 presidential election – and glosses over how unconvincing some of its stunts could be.
Many of the more eye-popping accounts of the Internet Research Agency’s activities have come from former staff members. One, Alan Baskaev, told the independent Russian television channel Rain last year that the agency made a video that looked like a U.S. soldier shooting a Quran and had even hired two actors in an abortive bid to fake a sex tape of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“No one would buy it, clearly,” Baskaev told the broadcaster , laughing.
The Associated Press couldn’t confirm Baskaev’s sex tape story, but a video of a purported U.S. soldier in desert camouflage firing an assault-style weapon at a Quran was posted to an American gun forum in September 2015.
The fakery was screamingly obvious: The soldier’s uniform was misshapen and out of date. His helmet resembled the headwear a cyclist might wear and the English he spoke was so heavily accented it was almost indecipherable.
The BBC’s Russian service identified the man in 2016 as a bartender in St. Petersburg, a friend of someone who worked at the troll factory.
The Quran video and others like it were ignominious flops. The New York Times Magazine in 2015 identified other fake videos , including footage meant to spark panic about a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana supposedly caused by the Islamic State group. Another showed a phony shooting in Atlanta, Georgia that carried echoes of Michael Brown’s fatal 2014 encounter with police in Ferguson, Missouri.
The indictment that charged 13 Russians with meddling in the presidential race makes no mention of them, but the amateurish videos continued through the election. Last year The Daily Beast said it had identified “Williams and Kalvin” – a rap duo purportedly from Atlanta that appeared in YouTube videos – as operatives of the Russian troll operation. Speaking in a thick Nigerian accent, the man who went by Williams slammed Hillary Clinton as a racist and said, “This is time for change.”
“Let our vote go for Trump, because this man is a businessman, he’s not a politician,” he continued. “Any businessman cannot be a racist.”
The cringe-inducing quality of such videos and other pieces of the trolls’ work is another aspect of the alleged interference left out of the indictment – and much of the attendant media coverage.
The agency did manage to organize rallies in the U.S., but turnout appears to have been microscopic. Even online, the trolls struggled with their command of English. One of the Internet Research Agency’s most popular Facebook pages, the secessionist-minded Heart of Texas, was packed with malapropisms.
“Hillary Clinton behind bars is a dream of thousands of Americans and may the god this dream come true,” reads one of the Facebook posts that journalist Casey Michael eventually collected . “Texas is a heaven of Earth, a land give to us by Lord himself!” reads another.
The nonsensical quality of the work would be no surprise to former troll farm employee Baskaev. He described a slap-dash operation whose internet connections frequently failed and whose fake profiles repeatedly got spiked by Facebook administrators.
When the managers had gone home, the 20-somethings working the night shift at the troll farm ran amok, he said, playing Islamic State anthems over the sound system and jokingly saluting each other with the Ukrainian nationalist greeting, “Glory to Ukraine!”
The indictment alleges that the troll farm sent operatives to the United States. Baskaev said the same to Rain last year, but added that he doubted any of them accomplished much in the U.S.
“They probably just went out boozing and partying,” he said.