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Russian Magazine Says 'Trolls' Used Social Media To Disrupt U.S. Election


A lot's been said about how Russia has used social media to try to influence America's vote last November. Facebook, Twitter and Google all acknowledge that people in Russia used their platforms to target an American audience. The Kremlin has denied meddling. But now a new wrinkle emerges from Russia. A Russian business magazine is out with an expose, and it's based on interviews with people who say they took part in attempts to influence U.S. politics. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: A couple of years ago, the world learned about the so-called Russian troll factory, an office in St. Petersburg where hundreds of employees spend their days flooding social media with disinformation and fake news. The troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency, was mentioned in the U.S. intelligence community's report on Russian hacking in January. Russian journalist Andrey Zakharov has been investigating the role of the troll factory in last year's U.S. elections.

ANDREY ZAKHAROV: I was surprised that a Russian propaganda machine can create something very effective.

KIM: Andrey Zakharov is a reporter for the Russian business magazine RBK. He found the troll factory had created 120 accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They've now been blocked. But Zakharov says in the run-up to the election, the troll factorise posts we're getting 70 million views a week. He says rather than openly support a particular candidate, the trolls were more interested in exploiting discontent over hot-button issues like police violence, gun control and LGBT rights.

ZAKHAROV: They found main problems of American society, and they tried to make the situation worse, you know, not to support this or that candidate. Yes, they criticized Hillary, but also they criticized Trump before elections and after elections and even organized anti-Trump protests.

KIM: Zakharov says the troll factory also organized other protests, using a front organization they called BlackMattersUS. The Kremlin has denied any knowledge of the Internet Research Agency, but Zakharov other Russian journalists believe the agency is funded by a St. Petersburg businessman with Kremlin connections. Zakharov says the U.S. influence campaign was a bargain. The America desk had only 90 employees and cost just $2 million over the past two years. But some people question whether even having 70 million views on social media can sway an election.

ALEXEY KOVALEV: It's really a drop in the ocean, and there's no way to measure the actual impact. I mean, how many people actually changed their mind and voted for Trump instead of Hillary after seeing a questionable ad on Facebook? There is no way to measure it.

KIM: That's Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist in Moscow who runs a website called Noodle Remover which debunks Russian government propaganda. Kovalev says Americans shouldn't overestimate the abilities of Russian trolls.

KOVALEV: To be honest, I don't really think it's a danger of any kind. We've seen that both people ordering this campaign and running this campaign aren't simply competent enough to cause any lasting, tangible damage. So while this is obviously a hot story, I really think it's really blown out of proportion.

KIM: But at least someone in St. Petersburg thinks the campaigns are worth it. According to journalist Andrey Zakharov, the troll factory still has 50 employees on social media targeting the United States. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.