Latvia overrun by Kremlin-financed internet trolls

Authorities continue to discover more proof that Russian government institutions directly or indirectly finance internet commentators who take part in discussions on social networks, news portals and blogs. The so-called trolls work in Russian-language media and internet environments and foreign information spaces, including Latvia, as reported by De Facto programme of the LTV channel.

“The Security Police analyses processes that transpire in the country’s information space. This includes measures aimed at identifying trolling activities for the creation of political and ideological opinions in Latvia that are favourable to Russia. Trolling activities and re-publishing of Russian propaganda materials in Latvia in regard to political and social processes have been uncovered,” according to the the report by the SP.

NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia has analysed the strategy of Russian trolls in Ukraine.

“The posts are mostly praising Russia: they state that Vladimir Putin is a great, strong and fair leader; that Russia’s foreign policy is right, just and legitimate and that the Euro-Atlantic structure is problematic and that our country’s [Latvia’s] membership in such structures will only harm it,” explains the centre’s senior expert Elīna Lange-Ionatamišvili.

She admits that even though no exact surveys have been carried out, trolling activities in Latvia are apparent: “As a citizen who uses social media, I have seen activities that can be classified as trolling. This has been seen in Latvian as well. What is interesting is that these comments do not always cover the topic of Putin or Ukraine; they may be made about the USA, saying that this country is the one dictating what NATO does. This sets a specific kind of information background for the person to project to when looking at other events, including the crisis in Ukraine, having interpreted it in favour of Russia.”

It is unknown how often Latvian people become victims of such information offensives. “A research effort would provide us with information regarding IP addresses in Riga or any other city, where a small group of trolls has set up a shop,” says researcher of the Eastern European Policy Research Centre Māris Cepurītis.

The Latvian authorities do not know how many social network accounts are fake and are used solely by trolls to post comments on news portals. It would be very important to learn how many trolls in Latvia are actually financed by the Russian government, analysts say. This is because one of their main objectives is to use fake comments, blog posts and discussions on the internet in order to create the impression that people of other countries support Russia’s actions.

“The goal of the information war waged by the Russian Federation is to divide our society. We know that 30% of marriages are formed between Latvians and foreigners. This means that our community is not divided at all. Trolling, on the other hand, can create the impression that the society consists of two hostile groups,” said former head of Constitution Protection Bureau Jānis Kažociņš in his interview with De Facto programme.

“We need internet operators. Work in an office. Duties: publication of internet comments, blogs and social network communication. Weekly wage, free lunches!” This job advert was found on one Russian-language social network. Russian journalists were the first ones to report trolling activities. A research has uncovered that trolls were hired by a local media firm called the House of Trolls. It is located in St. Petersburg and is linked to a businessman who has ties to Vladimir Putin.

According to documents published by ‘Anonymous’ hackers group, the House of Trolls has a staff of nearly 600 people. They regularly take part in discussions on social networks, news portals and blogs.

The topics comply with objectives set by the Russian political elite: praise the president and the state, curse the opposition. There are also specific quotas – a specific number of comments per day. Trolls are paid well: local journalists have estimated that the work of the House of Trolls in St. Petersburg is worth EUR 600,000 per month.

Journalists of Novaya Gazeta performed an experiment and applied for the position. “We were asked what articles we like writing and told which department to work in – blogging or social networks; given topics every day. For example – today we smear this or that opposition politician. It looks like any typical office – with rules and wage. Many of the employees are students; they take it as regular work and do not discuss politicians at all. I am convinced that this is not the only establishment of this kind,” said Novaya Gazeta journalist Alexandra Garmazhapova in her conversation with the LTV.

Notably, the House of Trolls in St. Petersburg also has an agency registered in Kharkov. It produces articles in favour of separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russia. Their articles are often referenced by the Latvian media as well, the online version of Vesti and TVNET portal.

Russian trolls use the same scheme to work in European countries as well. De Facto mentioned that informed sources had told that one of the Russian special services had a department whose sole goal was to influence public opinions in Estonia, including by means of trolling. According to information from the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, it is likely that Estonian information space has a troll problem.

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