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15 Nov, 2023 23:59

US-based network manages pro-Navalny troll farm – investigation

The group reportedly employs paid commenters online
US-based network manages pro-Navalny troll farm – investigation

An NGO founded by jailed Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny has been operating a vast network of paid online trolls to attack the government in Moscow and its political opponents alike, according to a media investigation published on Wednesday.

The bombshell report about the troll network allegedly linked to the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was published by SVTV, an online outlet founded by Russian libertarian blogger and activist Mikhail Svetov.

The investigation, based on a large trove of documents provided by a former employee, claims that FBK has been running the paid troll scheme for at least two years. The group moved its operations overseas in 2021, after a Moscow court declared it an extremist organization and ordered its dissolution. 

According to the report, the pro-FBK troll network has been bankrolled by the Free Russia Foundation (FRF), a Washington-based NGO active since 2014 that receives tax-free donations from US sponsors of “civil society and democratic development in Russia.” It also has an office in Ukraine. 

The FRF’s board of directors is chaired by David Kramer, senior fellow at the McCain Institute and former State Department assistant secretary. Among its board members is Paige Alexander, a former assistant administrator at USAID, the government agency responsible for allocating American money abroad.

The report says that the FRF contracted the troll work out to Reforum, a Lithuania-based non-profit. Officially, Reforum is paying contractors to perform “social media management consultations.” 

According to SVTV, the Reforum network has had some 200 paid online commentators, working from multiple offices in Vilnius, Lithuania and Tbilisi, Georgia. According to screenshots posted by SVTV, the trolls were instructed to use photos of real people who previously lost access to their accounts and insert random names when creating their fake profiles.

Commenters receive €10 ($10) per hour on average, making around €1,200-1,800 ($1,300-1,950) a month, depending on their performance. They have also taken to calling themselves “elves” who fight the “Russian trolls” and “orcs.” 

The pro-Navalny “elf” network has primarily focused on the conflict between Moscow and Kiev. The contractors were reportedly supplied with links to posts they should comment on, as well as lists of pre-approved talking points. This frequently led to nearly identical remarks appearing under the same posts, the report noted. 

In addition to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the network focused on other incidents and news from Russia, attempting to portray the authorities in a negative light. The “elves” have also gone after FBK’s opponents and other opposition figures who have had disagreements with Navalny, while leaving positive comments under content released by FBK.

FBK Director Ivan Zhdanov has said that the claims that the fund is relying on trolls are “completely false.”

“This network has absolutely nothing to do with the Anti-Corruption Foundation or me personally,” he wrote on X (formerly Twitter). “I am prepared to prove it in court.”