Speed Reads

lurking in the internet shadows

Inside the shady Russian agency tasked with trolling the world

They say you should never read the comments. Even Mitt Romney knows that. But for one shady organization in Russia, an entire business model depends on public consumption of — and faith in — internet comments sections, social media, and online profiles.

The New York Times Magazine published a shocking investigation Tuesday on Russia's Internet Research Agency, a company based in St. Petersburg that hires hundreds of young Russians to post and disseminate pro-Kremlin propaganda on the internet. The report begins by detailing a mysterious, threatening report of an ISIS chemical attack in Louisiana last September:

"Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians... found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster. "Heather, I'm sure that the explosion at the #ColumbianChemicals is really dangerous. Louisiana is really screwed now," a user named @EricTraPPP tweeted at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Heather Nolan. Another posted a screenshot of CNN's home page, showing that the story had already made national news. ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video … But anyone who took the trouble to check CNN.com would have found no news of a spectacular Sept. 11 attack by ISIS. It was all fake: the screenshot, the videos, the photographs." [The New York Times Magazine]

Employees of the Internet Research Agency apparently spend 12-hour days writing content for "every popular social network," writes Times reporter Adrian Chen. One of Chen's many sources was a former agency employee-turned-Benedict Arnold, Ludmila Savchuk, who compiled damning information while working for the company and leaked it all to a local newspaper before quitting. "They created such an atmosphere that people would understand they were doing something important and secretive and very highly paid," Savchuk told Chen, but they don't "clearly explain to you what your purpose there is."

After Chen finished his reporting and left Russia, he was the target of his very own troll campaign, too. Read the whole crazy story at The New York Times Magazine.