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A Mole Among Trolls: Inside the Internet Research Agency


    Vitaly Bespalov had no idea what to expect when he arrived at a business center in St. Petersburg, Russia, to ask for a job.

    Everything about the building seemed unusual to the 23-year-old reporter. There was a lot of security. The windows were darkened. Guards dressed like soldiers asked him where he lived. They examined his passport.

    As he was talking with them, a woman entered the building. She appeared to be extremely angry.

    Bespalov said, "She was yelling something about how she refused to be a part of this.”

    He added, “Everything about the place was strange.”

    The year was 2014. The place was the Internet Research Agency, a company which would hire Bespalov. The Internet Research Agency now faces criminal charges in the United States. The Justice Department has accused it of illegal interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    Bespalov recently described his experiences working at the Internet Research Agency to VOA.

    Russian journalist Vitaly Bespalov shows off his 'SOBCHAK' sweatshirt and matching tattoo in St. Petersburg, December 2017. (Photo: C. Maynes / VOA)
    Russian journalist Vitaly Bespalov shows off his 'SOBCHAK' sweatshirt and matching tattoo in St. Petersburg, December 2017. (Photo: C. Maynes / VOA)

    A mysterious and well-paying position

    Bespalov had moved from his home in Siberia to St. Petersburg to work at a local news website. But he did not get the job. So, he began to search for writing or reporting positions.

    One day he received a promising call. There was an opening for a writing job that paid double the usual amount.

    “I had no idea who it was,” Bespalov said. “They just called and told me to show up tomorrow at this address - Savushkina 55. And I didn’t understand what the job was or what the company was, but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

    Bespalov met there with a woman named Anna. He took a writing test and provided examples of his reporting. He described them as sympathetic pieces on Russia’s opposition movement.

    “I still don’t understand why they took me,” he says, adding that his politics were clearly anti-government. “But Anna came back with a smile and said, ‘Well, we don’t cover the kind of stories you do, but you know how to write.’”

    How to write for IRA

    On his first day, Bespalov was asked to cover the war in Ukraine. He was told to rewrite reports from other websites for a few fake Ukrainian news sites. The goal was make the reports seem fresh and pro-Russian government.

    For example, he said, he would change the word “annexation” to “reunification.” Or he would describe the Ukrainian government as “fascist” while commenting favorably about separatists in the eastern part of the country.

    Bespalov said he quickly understood he was working at the center of a propaganda machine. He said he was faced with only two possibilities. He could leave the so-called “troll factory” immediately to protect his professional image. Or, he could stay to learn more about the place and write a big story about it.

    Bespalov went with the second choice. He became a mole among trolls.

    He says the job demanded a lot. Teams worked eight to 12 hours around the clock, seven days a week. Supervisors watched their work. Cameras were deployed all over the building. The company discouraged employees from talking to each other.

    FILE - People walk past a news stand a day after the Ukrainian presidential election in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv May 26, 2014.
    FILE - People walk past a news stand a day after the Ukrainian presidential election in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv May 26, 2014.

    Investigating begins

    But, Bespalov did have short discussions with other workers during breaks. He said most seemed not to care or think about what they were doing.

    “I know people who’ve been there for three years and never thought once what it was all about. They were there for the money,” he says.

    Bespalov said it was a highly structured operation with a newsroom on one floor, and bloggers and social media workers on another. There was also an images department.

    Bespalov said the goal of all this was to complete what he called a “circle of lies.” The bloggers and social media operation supported state media news to push one central idea. Bespalov called that idea “Make Russia Great Again.”

    So, he said, the internet and state media had united.

    Bespalov said the effort was directed fully at the Russian people.

    He said, “Even the fake Ukrainian sites weren’t there to change minds in Ukraine. The point was to remove Russians’ doubts about the war in Ukraine and about ourselves because we have a weak economy, because we have few political freedoms.”

    He said the Internet Research Agency sought, in his words, “to create the appearance of a great country.”

    Time to go

    Bespalov worked at the agency for three-and-a-half months to learn as much about the organization as he could. Then, he quit.

    He published a report on his investigation in 2015. He said he did not use his own name as the writer because he worried for his safety. Later, he was threatened, he says, after others at the IRA began to suspect that the report was his work.

    Other reports came out and the threats stopped.

    “Everybody knew about it,” he says.

    Bespalov says he has very little additional information about the Internet Research Agency. But, he said it had started looking for English-speakers around the time he quit.

    Bespalov said his actions have been misrepresented in Russia and the United States.

    He said people in the U.S. do not call him a reporter but a former troll. And in Russia he is considered a treasonous liar. He said his friends want him to stop talking because they fear he will be killed.

    Now it appears the IRA worked to influence Russia's 2018 presidential campaign.

    An internet user named “Kremlebot,” claiming to work for IRA’s Russian language group, posted that employees worked to raise voter numbers.

    Facebook and Reddit social media sites have removed accounts each company identified as connected to the IRA.

    The Russian government has denied any connection to or direct knowledge of the company.

    I’m Susan Shand. And I’m Dorothy Gundy.

    Charles Mayne reported this story for VOA News. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA. Caty Weaver was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    address – n. the words and numbers that are used to describe the location of a building

    fakeadj. not true or real

    annexation – n. the act of taking control of a part of a country

    reunification – n. to make something, such as a divided country whole again

    fascist – adj. a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government

    mole – n. a spy who works inside an organization and gives secret information to another organization or country

    trolln. a person who tries to cause problems on an Internet message board by posting messages that cause other people to argue, become angry,

    doubt – n. to be uncertain about (something) : to believe that (something) may not be true or is unlikely

    discourage – v. to tell or advise someone not to do something