The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A whistleblower is trying to bring down Russia’s secret Internet troll army

In this picture taken on Wednesday, April 15, Lyudmila Savchuk speaks in an interview in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia. Savchuk, a single mother with two children, was once a "Kremlin troll" working as part of an immense propaganda machine trying to shape public opinion not only across Russia but also in the United States and Europe. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

MOSCOW—One of the Kremlin Internet trolling operation’s most vocal whistleblowers wants the entire thing shut down – and is taking her former employer to court to do it.

Lyudmila Savchuk is suing her old employer, the Internet Research Agency, for moral damages and seeking to close the company, on the grounds that employees who punched 12-hour shifts to troll various Western Web sites with pro-Kremlin comments did not have proper Russian employment contracts.

Various reports have documented the work of the secretive agency, set up in St. Petersburg, where hundreds of employees would set up fake identities through social media profiles, fill the comments sections of Russia-related articles, and stage fake campaigns and news events, all to promote a pro-Kremlin, anti-Western message.

[Opinion: How trolling could become the new international language of diplomacy]

One recent report in the New York Times even linked the Russian trolling operation to real-life, non-Internet based scares, like a purported toxic chemical disaster in Louisiana.

The operation is complex and serious: reports have documented how various trolls get into staged relationships and conversations with other trolls, to give the whole thing an air of credibility.

The efforts of those employed to keep the operation going don’t go unrewarded either – workers earn in the ballpark of $800 to $1,000 per month for their efforts, considered a good salary in Russia. But those who go to work for the trolling operation don’t sign an official contract – just a non-disclosure agreement.

Savchuk worked in the operation for two months, collecting some information that she passed along to Russian reporters, before quitting.

Her lawyer told Russian news service Kommersant that the suit was “an excuse to bring this quite closed organization into the public arena” – a process that could necessitate making various documents and the organization’s charter as well.

But Russia will have to wait a while for such revelations. Savchuk’s opening day in court was supposed to be Monday, but the court pushed everything back to June 23 when the defendant didn’t show up.