Hunting for paid Russian trolls in the Washington Post comments section

A Pro-Russian militant guards a check-point in the outskirts of Donetsk (AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV) A Pro-Russian militant guards a check-point in the outskirts of Donetsk (AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV)

Since April, Russia has spent thousands of dollars amassing a “troll army” to torment American social networking and news sites, per a pair of stories that ran on Buzzfeed this week.

The trolls are, allegedly, legion. They’re foul-mouthed and irritable. They’re funded by an online marketing firm with very distant ties to the Kremlin. And they are, according to Buzzfeed, operating in the Post’s comment section — as well as the New York Times’, CNN’s and the Huffington Post’s.

The Post hasn’t, for the record, been able to conclusively verify Buzzfeed’s reporting or review the original documents from an “anonymous hacker collective” that reporter Max Seddon cited in his story. Nevertheless, we couldn’t let these simultaneously menacing and hilarious allegations of overseas trolling stand! And so, armed with some healthy skepticism and the descriptions of the trolls’ behavior in Seddon’s piece, I — along with the Post’s commenting overlords, Julia Carpenter and Beth Butler — set off to hunt some trolls.

The Russian trolls, per Buzzfeed, generally share a couple of telltale characteristics. They are, it should go without saying, (a) Russian and (b) trolls, a.k.a. commenters who engage in off-topic provocation for no apparent reason besides giving moderators like Beth and Julia headaches. Their English tends to be poor, with syntactical and grammatical errors characteristic of native Russian speakers. And they always engage on one of a set list of topics, which include — predictably — Ukraine, President Obama and LGBT rights.

Sure enough, we found a few commenters who seemed to fit the bill. Like this user, commenting on an article about Obama’s dismissal of Russian territorial claims:

Halloo, egghead! Let’s go! “Oink-oink-oink-oink-oink …” hahaha-haha-ha…..))))))))))) [He then launches into an anti-American screed in Russian.]

Or another commenter, who twice left the same response to an article about Ukraine:

But we are millions here, all Russian, we do not like to kiss *** of the western superiors of Ukrainian candy president. We want to be part of mother impire. What about us?

A third suspicious user was banned from the Post’s forums after making multiple comments in Russian and then posting a Social Security number, in violation of Post policies.

By and large, however, these trolls weren’t any trollier than some of the other more disruptive denizens of the Post’s comments section, most of whom provide their services — we assume — for free. In fact, while a few of the apparent trolls had comments deleted for violating Post policies, the group as a whole never stood out from the other commenters the Post flags daily. (… which, come to think of it, may say something profound about the caliber of online discourse.)

“We didn’t immediately pluck them out from the crowd as mastermind spies,” is how Julia put it.

This is all anecdotal, of course, but it supports observations that have been made about similar international trolling efforts before. It certainly merits comparison to the U.S. State Department’s “Digital Outreach Team,” which dedicates itself largely to trolling jihadists in Arabic, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu-language forums, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

So far, reviews of that program have been pretty mediocre: a 2012 study concluded that the team’s efforts did very little to change the tone of anti-American conversations. In fact, on the whole, users were vastly more likely to ridicule or refute the American trolls than to actually converse with them. It would seem the Post’s Russian trolls have met much the same fate.

“The Obama administration should encourage itself to keep it’s nose away from Russian-Ukrainian relations,” wrote one. One minute later, another user had already countered.

“Not going to happen, buddy.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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