ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Out of place in a residential neighbourhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, is an eight-storey modern glass building with a massive parking lot wrapped around it. It’s not easy to get inside.
There’s a security gate and everyone who enters needs a security pass. My Russian producer tells me most of the people who come here work for the Internet Research Agency - better known around the world as a Russian troll farm.
In 2014, it was believed to be the only one – home to 200 or so workers who created fake websites, news and misinformation online, 24/7.
Now, it’s believed there are dozens of buildings filled with "writers" and "influencers," each with quotas and targets and each allegedly working with the full support of the Putin government.
Vitaly Bespalov worked at that original troll farm. He grew up in Western Siberia, and graduated with a degree in journalism. Eager to move to St. Petersburg, the 28 year old started applying to job postings online. One job in particular caught his eye.
“It was a common job advertisement for a position of a content manager. It neither specified the area of work, nor any details were given. The only difference was the salary that they proposed. It was twice as much as other similar positions.”
As soon as he started the job, it became clear that what he was expected to do was a long way from real journalism.
“I happened to work in three different departments. The first one dealt with those fake sites, the pseudo-Ukrainian ones. The second one was the social media marketing department, which dealt with making spam of fake news and sending them throughout the Russian social networks using fake accounts. The third department had a Russian site, a real site, not a fake one, which dealt with publishing lies about the West, about the Ukraine and about then U.S. President Barack Obama.”
Bespalov lasted just over three months and then began to speak out against the troll farms. That, however, didn’t slow them down. In fact they became bolder in their attacks on foreign targets. Millions of tweets and thousands of Facebook posts were created by these trolls and linked to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Patrick Warren is a professor and researcher at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has been analyzing over three million tweets from fake Russian accounts.
“It was actually a very complex, multi-faceted propaganda effort out of this organization affiliated with the Russian government. They had an overarching strategy to divide, not just American, but including American population to make people think the world was worse than it really is. To make people think that the institutions that have sustained sort of liberal democracy don’t work so well after all.”
Now, he believes these same trolls have set their sights on Canada and the upcoming federal election.
Warren says the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo started trending on July 19 with 53,000 tweets. That’s about 2,000 tweets per hour which targeted the prime minister of Canada.
“I think that the whole, the overarching purpose is to undermine the reliability of liberal democracies around the world.”
In an attempt to stop foreign interference during the 2019 Canadian federal election, Canada’s top security agencies are monitoring the web 24/7. Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), works hand in hand with a largely secret organization, Communication Security Establishment (CSE), which gathers information and decides when to act upon it. Elections Canada is also watching to make sure Canada’s 26-million eligible voters have the right information to cast their ballot.
Stephane Perrault is the Chief Electoral Officer for Elections Canada.
“First of all, we have a voter information campaign for this election. We have a social media monitoring capacity, so we have tools and a fairly significant team that monitors social media in a range of languages, some 20 languages, to identify misinformation about the voting process. That allows us to intervene and correct any misinformation”
Former Russian troll Vitaly Bespalov thinks the Russians have already come up with new ways to meddle with our political views. After being implicated for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, they have to be more creative as Canadians get ready to go to the polls.
"So now I think they are going to invent some other schemes of influencing the audience. It will be done in a different way. No need to look for trolls on Facebook, they will find a new way."
Watch “Dirty Tricks” on Saturday’s season premiere of CTV’s W5 at 7 p.m.