‘Agents of Chaos’: ‘Russian troll factory’ IRA targeted Ukrainians before provoking bedlam in 2016 US election
Before the US electorate was their target, in Russia, residents had already fallen prey to the IRA's massive disinformation campaigns, whose success story paved the way to the Crimean annexation by the Putin-led Kremlin
America witnessed arguably one of its most chaotic presidential elections ever in the year 2016, with US intelligence agencies pointing out to Russian interference, claims of a political party's collusion with a foreign government, and ultimately an independent probe on how the elections were influenced. Years after Donald Trump became the president, many still wonder what was the 2016 political kerfuffle all about? Was it Vladimir Putin's plan to rule the world, a Democratic witch hunt to take down Trump, or a cold war brewing?
HBO's new documentary 'Agents of Chaos', states that "for some politicians, chaos is necessary to get by — sometimes with a little help from your friends," and adds that President Trump thrives on chaos, "the more chaos the better." US intelligence officials, in a report in 2015, established that there was an ongoing Russian disinformation war in the country, and at the heart of it was the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), popularly known as the infamous "Russian troll factory." American residents, in 2016, did not know who Russian trolls were and how they were controlling the political narrative of their country by creating fake social media accounts of people, organizations, and even local media. However, closer home in Russia, the residents had already fallen prey to the IRA's massive disinformation campaigns, whose success story paved the way to the Crimean annexation by the Putin-led Kremlin.
It all started in 2013, St. Petersburg, Russia, with a hiring campaign for an organization, which was looking for people to help it "engineer politics." A BBC investigative journalist, Andrei Soshnikov, applied undercover and was amazed at what he found in a standard-looking building. "The troll farm itself is like a Disney Land for investigative journalists, there's always something going on there. It's a very evil organization that was fun to investigate," Soshnikov, the first person to write about the Russian trolls, said. The only two questions Soshnikov was asked during the hiring process was his attitude towards Kremlin and his Russian position. And the workforce mainly was split into two types of trolls: Simple trolls and the ones in analytics, who created an agenda for the rest to use certain words and phrases in their fake comments, blogs, and social media posts, words like "Putin is the best," and "Putin's rating today," to promote their opinion.
Although there are no direct links between the IRA and the Russian president, the organization's source of funding has been established as coming from a powerful Russin businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hotdog seller, also known as "Putin's chef." The organization, after launching its initial campaign of disinformation, upscaled itself within months by hiring political analysts and famous bloggers to teach them how to be effective in their approach, and soon Ukraine became their testing lab for what was to unfold in the US in 2016. The trolls helped the Kremlin against war with Ukraine by spreading misinformation in the Eastern region of the country, where there are many Russian speakers.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in 2013, expressed an approach to lead the country to become European Union-centric, giving hope to the residents that the country would be westernized. However, Putin, who had a significant influence on Ukraine, was afraid of losing the country to Europe. This is where the trolls came to his assistance, according to the film. The Kremlin needed to portray that Ukraine moving toward the west was not beneficial for its residents and the Russian trolls got to work attempting to sway public opinion by launching a disinformation operation. Meanwhile, Putin invited Yanukovych for a conversation, which led to the latter backing out of his EU-centric approach. This sparked a massive public uprising in Ukraine as the citizens felt betrayed. The protests turned violent in 2014, with Ukraine security services shooting at protesters. After weeks of violent protest, a de-escalation plan was decided and Yanukovych was scheduled to get on a call with then-Vice President Joe Biden. However, Yanukovych abandoned Ukraine in the middle of the crisis and fled to Russia. Within hours, Russian forces invaded Crimea, a strategic part of Ukraine for Moscow. The region was cut from the mainland within a couple of days and Crimea was annexed in a week.
Throughout the unrest, the Russian trolls had a key role to play: they split the country apart with disinformation. They portrayed the protesters as neo-Nazis attempting to seize power. The disinformation was spreading to the outside world too, where people on Facebook with left-leanings read that Ukraine was a fascist regime, while people on the other side read that the whole uprising was a Jewish international conspiracy helmed by Jewish oligarchs. All of this was being orchestrated within the walls of a small office in St. Petersburg, where the troll factory had formulated a big Ukraine department, with about 20 fake news articles being written every day. "It wasn't journalism, a teenager could do it," a former Russian troll said.
After their lab experiment in Ukraine proved to be a massive success story, they used the same tools and mechanisms to target the 2016 presidential election voters in America. The IRA, according to the film, was not pro-Trump when it began its disinformation attack on the US, it was anti-America, and had just one goal: creating chaos.
'Agents of Chaos' airs September 23-24 at 9 pm on HBO.