2018-09-21 | Analysis
Pro-Kremlin internet trolls ramp up complex operations in Central Asia
By Kanat Altynbayev
ALMATY -- Russian online troll factories are ramping up their operations in Central Asia as Moscow moves to realise its strategic ambitions in the region, analysts warn.
Moscow is using its affiliated mass media outlets and modern information technologies to advance its soft power in countries where it has geopolitical interests.
The Central Asian region, which Moscow has traditionally considered to be within its sphere of influence, is especially at risk because of the prevalence of Russian news sites spreading the Kremlin's propaganda.
Moreover, they often present two faces to their different audiences, cultivating a positive image of Russia and promoting its policy for consumption within Central Asian countries while simultaneously smearing migrant workers from Central Asia on TV and other media in Russia.
The Kremlin also actively uses local online media platforms, popular forums and social networks, where so-called agents of influence, or trolls, operate.
A complex online operation
Marat Burkhard, a former employee of a Russian "troll factory", told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) about his work in an interview in March 2015.
Burkhard worked for a company called the Internet Research Agency based on Savushkin Street in St. Petersburg.
The four-story building houses a number of different departments that specialise in mass media, social networking websites, and image and video production. A great variety of communication and creative specialists are on staff, including journalists, bloggers, commenters, artists and film editors, he said.
The troll factory staff daily produces thousands of comments on news articles or forums, writing posts and replying to other bloggers, Burkhard said.
The trolls supported Russian President Vladimir Putin by working on assigned keywords, playing off Russian patriotic sentiments and criticising the policies of Western countries, he said.
To ensure that discussions looked authentic, some bloggers played the role of "villains" criticising the Kremlin, but their awkward comments were more likely to make Putin's opponents look bad than they were to be convincing, Burkhard said.
Trolls working in factories are not the only ones operating on the internet. Other independent pro-Kremlin bloggers often pronounce themselves experts and are then cited by Russian-backed media.
For example, one such blogger named Boris Rozhin calls himself a military analyst. He does not hide his pro-Russian and anti-Western views and says his idol is Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Hidden between actual news items, Rozhin's posts include messages against Ukraine and Western nations like the United States, as well as his own often pro-Kremlin analysis.
In one instance, in a post on the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Rozhin hints that al-Qaeda neither benefited from nor planned those four hijackings -- a message that the terrorist group itself, desperate for "prestige", has tried to debunk.
Instead, Rozhin cites a dubious online poll asking "Who benefited most from the destruction of the World Trade Centre?", to which a majority of alleged respondents said the US government was the main beneficiary.
Based on that presumption, Rozhin goes on to claim that there is no question of a joint effort among "foreign intelligence services, the White Helmets, the al-Nusra Front and '[the] free democratic media' to fabricate 'chemical attacks.'"
This narrative supports the Kremlin's attempts to deflect blame for well-documented chemical weapon bombardments of Syrian civilians carried out by the Russia-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Although Rozhin calls his Twitter account "the mouthpiece of totalitarian propaganda", Russian mass media outlets such as Sputnik, Russian bots and other bloggers have no problem citing him as a "military expert".
'What are you without Russia?'
Russia is using its news media and social media to carry out a variety of hostile tactics, observers say.
Russia is using social networks such as My [email protected], VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki to promote its agenda and extend its cultural influence in the post-Soviet space, Nodar Kharshiladze, a Tbilisi-based political scientist and founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre, told Caravanserai.
Russia also exploits the internet to influence elections abroad, said Askat Dukenbayev, a political analyst from Bishkek.
That behaviour includes inciting xenophobia in the United States and Europe, spreading anti-American sentiments and bolstering Russian influence in Russian-speaking countries, he told Caravanserai.
Among other places, pro-Kremlin trolls are actively working in Kyrgyzstan, where they have specific goals -- to cultivate loyalty to Russia and support Putin's foreign policy, Dukenbayev said.
"Trolls present Russia in a favourable light for Kyrgyz [citizens]," he said. "They initiate a colonial discourse -- 'Who and what are you without Russia?', instil [a sense of] scepticism toward the democratic transformations in Kyrgyzstan, and create nostalgia for the USSR among the older generation -- 'How great everything used to be.'"
Dukenbayev was referring to the two overthrows of Kyrgyz presidents (2005 and 2010) and the country's adoption of a political system weighted toward parliament after the 2010 revolution -- all upheavals that deeply unnerved the Kremlin.
Pro-Kremlin bloggers smear liberal activists, portraying them as "agents of the West", "Russophobes" and "extremists", he said.
They persecute such activists when they "try to challenge the neo-imperial, anti-democratic and anti-national policy of Putin's Russia in Kyrgyzstan", he said.
The Putin regime's information strategy is "not so much a form of 'soft power' as it is a form of 'hybrid' war, which an economically ailing country can afford", Dukenbayev said.
"Judging from the new wave of sanctions, the United States and [European Union] countries have started to realise what is happening," he said. "However, do authorities in Central Asian countries understand it? If so, what are they doing to defend their states' national interests?"
Based on his personal observations, several dozen such trolls are active in Kyrgyzstan, according to Dukenbayev.
In one incident on August 31, Kyrgyzstan's Independence Day, hackers took over a Facebook group called "Kyrgyzstan Against the Customs Union" -- referring to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) -- with more than 9,000 members, he said.
The hackers deleted all of the group's administrators, changed the cover photo to the USSR's flag and crest, renamed the group and closed off access to it, he said.
They mockingly renamed the group "Kyrgyz, happy holidays!"
Pro-Kremlin trolls write enthusiastic posts about Putin and defend pro-Russian positions using their real social media accounts, Gulnura Toraliyeva, a Bishkek-based public relations consultant and former adviser to Sapar Isakov, a former Kyrgyz prime minister, told Caravanserai.
"However, when they smear people with pro-Western views, [the trolls] use fake accounts," she said.
Pro-Kremlin agents on the internet are particularly active in groups that discuss the Moscow-led EEU, which includes Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, according to Toraliyeva.
Such trolls defend the EEU, portraying the union as beneficial for Kyrgyzstan, she said. As such, one of their main targets in Kyrgyzstan are EEU opponents.