With Troll Farms Flourishing in Russia, Is There a Way to Fight Fake News?

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

MOSCOW, Russia — While President Donald J. Trump continues to tweet about what he considers “fake news,” Russia has taken the production of actually falsified stories to an entirely new level.

On October 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated his 65th birthday. The same day, Russian media reported that a restaurant in New York — Lucy’s Cantina Royale — got a special offer for its customers, a Putinburger. A burger with five patties weighted 1952 grams to mark 1952, the year when the Russian president was born. All Russian media shared the same video from the venue shot by the crew of RT TV, formerly known as Russia Today.

Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist, did not believe this story. Mr. Kovalev is the founder of a fact-checking project dubbed Lapshesnimalochnaya, or “a noodle remover.” “Hanging noodles on someone’s ears” is the Russian equivalent of “pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes.”

Mr. Kovalev contacted restaurant Manager Sean Ryan, who told him that “Lucy’s Cantina Royale was the subject of a hoax.” The place never offered Putinburger.

It turned out that two Russian girls who worked at the restaurant at the time faked the entire story. They told their boss they were going to film a student project but invited a RT crew.

“Is there any way to fight fake news? A realistic answer would be ‘no.’ There’s no way,” Mr. Kovalev told The Globe Post. “There are tons of scientific studies which proved that fake news only exist because people want to believe in them. You can try to uncover the truth as much as you want but until [it] corresponds to people’s inner convictions, it will be all for nothing. Moreover, the more you try to prove something is fake, the more people presume it is true. It is a backfire effect.”

Mr. Kovalev said he was sure the world did not need another fact-checking project because they only “preach to the converted.” Hence he transformed his Lapshesnimalochnaya into an investigative journalism project.

“It’s always painful to re-evaluate your views, especially for adults. And it is much easier to solely take from informational stream data which strengthens your opinion,” he added.

Depth of Impact

Last year, fake social media accounts and news coming from Russia had probably got more media attention than Russian hackers. Russian authorities were accused on numerous acts of interference, many of which were presumably carried out by the Kremlin-paid trolls and fake story producers.

In November, Spanish Defense Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal said Madrid had evidence that Russian private and state-sponsored groups had massively published Facebook, Twitter and other platforms posts in an attempt to swing public opinion just before the Catalonia independence vote. According to Ms. de Cospedal, these groups tried to “influence the situation and create instability in Europe.”

The Russian embassy in Spain slammed the statement and media reports about interference calling them “fake news.”

But the wave of similar allegations against Russia was started much earlier by the U.S. officials as Washington launched a probe into Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

“There is far more hysteria about [Russian] fake news than actual influence,” Aric Toler, a Bellingcat expert, told The Globe Post. “I do think that fake news can have a real impact — the far-right conservative movement in the U.S. has used this for a very, very long time, like with the Obama birther phenomena. But I don’t think that Russian fake news is effective in the U.S. because places like RT and Sputnik have a microscopic reach compared to far-right American outlets.”

Trolls Became Kremlin’s Most Reliable Allies

However, the limited reach of fake news has not stopped the Kremlin from creating such stories. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified more than 400 Twitter accounts, which posted false stories about Brexit. They were believed to be run from Russia. The Guardian November investigation had shown that the British media quoted “troll army” tweets more than 80 times before they were banned. Respectful media outlets have helped fake stories reach a wider audience.

Russian officials denied any involvement despite evidence of the “troll army” existence.

Some political analysts believe that appearance of the first paid trolls in Russia dates as far back as 2000 — the first year of Putin’s presidency. Until 2014, Kremlebots, as locals call them, had targeted the Russian-speaking audience. They started to spread internationally around the time of the Ukrainian crisis.

Around the same time, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman and an old friend of Mr. Putin, founded Troll Factory based in Russia’s St. Petersburg. At the beginning, its employees mainly focused on writing comments in support of the Kremlin and criticizing the Russian opposition via fake social media accounts.

The factory has become well-known thanks to Lyudmila Savchuk, an ex-employee who uncovered her identity and sued her bosses for moral damage. Ms. Savchuk was given only one ruble compensation ($0,017), but she says she does not care about money – her purpose was to make the court admit the existence of Troll Factory.

“I have worked there for a while under high psychological pressure and got an eye tic and nightmares about Putin and Ukraine,” an ex-troll who had to constantly rewrite news articles about Donbass, said as quoted by Sobaka Magazine.

After becoming successful, the startup gave birth to its own media. According to RBC data, troll-controlled media gets more than fifty billion visitors every month.

There are several big media outlets in Russia that are not linked with Mr. Prigozhin’s enterprises, but they often produce fake stories.

Mr. Toler named Russian Defense Ministry’s (MO) TV channel Zvezda among them.

“Money does literally go to it through the MO budget. A trickier question is if any Kremlin money goes to Prigozhin’s operations at Savushkina [street in St. Petersburg] (or wherever they are located now), as they produced a constant stream of fake stories through a series of ‘news’ sites,” Mr. Toler added.

American Department

One of the factory’s former legal names — Internet Research Agency — can be found in the FBI and other U.S. federal agencies’ papers on the Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election.

Another ex-troll told media that the factory started to focus on the U.S. presidential race one and a half year prior to its beginning. Around ninety people worked for the so-called American Department. They created social media communities, spread fake news and planed events. Their posts often had grammar mistakes and, according to Columbia University linguists, “weird structure.” However, trolls managed to engage Americans.

Each month the factory spent around $5,000 on promoting its social media posts. The highest Facebook coverage, seventy million views, was reached in October 2016. Fake communities arranged several events, ten of which were dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. In May 2016, they organized a Muslim meeting in Texas and simultaneously a protest against them at the same place.

“They did not have the task to support Trump,” a source close to the factory’s directors told RBC. The goal was to highlight problems in the American society, but accidentally it started to correlate with President Trump’s agenda.

“Places like Breitbart and Fox News have 100000x more impact than any Russian fake news in the U.S. Those places, of course, use fake or heavily exaggerated or misrepresented stories all the time (Breitbart especially),” Mr. Toler explained. “But Russian fake news is effective in Russia obviously, for the same reason that fake stories from far-right American outlets are effective in the U.S.”

Mr. Kovalev noted that the U.S. media is not immune from fake news articles since they tend to exaggerate things.

“We’ve been reading articles with very promising headlines about collusion between President Trump and Russia the whole year and each time, closer to the eighth paragraph, it turned out that in reality, the situation looked quite different from what was described in the headline. I would consider that fake news too,” he said.