A 37-page indictment issued by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team on Friday brings fresh American attention to one of the strangest elements of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election: The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a state-sponsored “troll factory” in St. Petersburg.
But much of the information Mueller published on Friday about the agency’s efforts to influence the election had already been published last October — in an article by a Russian business magazine, RBC.
In a 4,500-word report titled “How the 'troll factory' worked the U.S. elections,” journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov offered the fullest picture yet of how the “American department” of the IRA used Facebook, Twitter and other tactics to inflame tensions ahead of the 2016 vote. The article also looked at the staffing structure of the organization and revealed details about its budget and salaries.
Zakharov agreed to answer some questions for WorldViews about his reaction to the details about the IRA in Mueller’s indictments (Rusyaeva left journalism after the story came out, although she stresses she did not do so because of a reaction to the story). Zakharov explained how it was a strange feeling seeing something he had so closely investigated become a major issue in the United States, when it had not been a “bombshell” when he published his report at home.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.
WorldViews: You’ve read the Mueller document. What was your reaction to it?
Andrey Zakharov: Well, of all the people who are mentioned there, only some people were the real top managers of the troll factory.
Like [Mikhail] Bystrov, who’s been the head of all its legal entities for a long time. He’s a former policeman. Another guy is [Mikhail] Burchik. We wrote about him. He was the executive director of the troll factory for a long time. And the last guy is Jeyhun Aslanov. He was and I think he’s still with the head of American department.
Both Aslanov and Burchik always denied that had something in common with the factory, Bystrov never commented it.
The other staff mentioned are very incidental. I mean, it seems like they put down all the names they could get. Some were people who worked there in 2014 — but most of these guys didn’t work for the troll factory for a long time. They didn’t even work there during the elections. Like Krylova, she didn’t work there then. [Aleksandra Krylova is one of the two named Internet Research Agency employees the indictment said traveled to the United States in 2014.]
It looks like they just took some employees from the that American department whose names they could get. But the American department was like 90 people. So my reaction was that, for me, it was like that curious list of oligarchs and Kremlin authorities where they put the whole Forbes list and the whole Kremlin administration on it. It’s very strange.
I was also very surprised that they wrote private about the private messages of one girl [Irina Kaverzina]. She wrote to relatives that FBI is following them and so on. I think they read her emails. I was very surprised by that. But generally, they seem to have got people who were not careful — who used their own email accounts or registered Twitter accounts to Russian phone numbers.
WV: I saw some people on social media who suggested that the Mueller team must have read your report. Do you think that’s true?
AZ: That they read it? Probably. Some of your U.S. colleagues used to contact me. Maybe some of them worked for your government, I don’t know. Nobody who said they were from Mueller’s team contacted me. I’ve never told people more than we wrote anyway.
WV: What was it that made you feel it was time to do a big investigation into the American section of the troll factory?
AZ: In March we investigated the troll factory but at that time we focused on another part of it — its work setting up official media agencies. At the end we wrote that the troll factory worked before and after the U.S. elections, and we put some statistics like 15 million likes and shares in one week and some details of the stories they were sharing. Then we forgot about the story.
But when Facebook and Twitter announced at the beginning of September that they closed a lot of accounts, your colleagues started to write to us about whether we knew more about this activity. We decided that everybody is so interested in the story, we should make a second investigation. We reviewed what we had uncovered in March, got some more information and wrote it.
WV: Is it difficult to report on?
AZ: For us it was easier. I lived in St. Petersburg before and worked as a journalist there. Russian media has been covering the troll factory since 2013, long before the big investigation in the New York Times Magazine — and by the way, most of the things in that were just taken from my colleagues.
And so I used to write about the troll factory. I already had sources there. Some of my friends had even worked there as a journalist. Polina had sources, too. But yes, in some cases they were scared. In some cases, foreign colleagues asked us whether our sources would speak to them, but they were too scared to talk with anyone else.
WV: When the story came out, what was the reaction from the Russian authorities?
AZ: It was, it was very interesting, because there was no official reaction. And at that time people here were already tired of the everyday news from your country was “the Russians did it.” I can’t say it was a bombshell.
We tried to focus only on what happened. We didn’t try to understand whether there was real influence on the election or not. And I still believe that nobody measured that properly. Yes, they were very active, but whether the influence was big or small? Nobody knows. We just wanted to show how they worked.
WV: Do you think that Americans misunderstand the troll factory then?
AZ: I just don’t know. When I went in this investigation I thought that maybe we should just take all authentic groups and all movements on Facebook and then compare that with these fake groups which were posted right by the troll factory. Maybe there are more members in the authentic groups? We didn’t do it. But nobody has really tried to measure whether the influence was great or not.
It was very strange when your media started to look into the groups. It was almost like a competition, you know. “We found out that this group was operated by Russians!” but then you’d look at this group and you’d find it only had 100 members. For some time, it looked a lot like your colleagues were just going after facts and not really analyzing it. There was that big investigation of those Macedonian guys, remember? They established fake pro-Trump groups, and their groups were huge. But even though it was said that these Macedonian guys influence American people, everybody forgot about it.
Also, everyone has focused on the pro-Trump groups. What we saw was that they were trying to spread tension in the society, talking about problems people had with black people, Islam and so on. They organized anti-Trump rallies also. Yes, they were active against Hillary [Clinton], but they were not always pro-Trump. They were also active after the election. The story about the Black Fist movement — fake movement self-defense classes for black people — they started this story in 2017, after Trump was elected.
WV: Do you still keep tabs on what the factory is doing?
AZ: We knew that after Facebook and Twitter blocked their groups, they still had groups and accounts with lots of followers, but we couldn’t find them. By the end of the last year, we knew that the American group was still active, but not by the same scale as before.
They are proud of their work. For them it was really fun: 90 people sitting in St. Petersburg, organizing groups with thousands and thousands of likes. It was a very successful social media marketing campaign.
WV: What are the big questions left about the troll factory?
AZ: Well we all know who is supposed to be running this factory. We just can’t prove it without phrases like “supposed to be” and so on. I think that should be investigated more. I also wonder what those guys [Aleksandra Krylova, Anna Bogacheva and a third unnamed agency staffer] really did in the U.S. in 2014. It is not like they are intelligence people, but I'm not sure.
And for your colleagues, the biggest question is still: Was the influence great or not?
WV: Do you have a personal opinion on that?
AZ: I don’t know. It’s difficult. Nobody is interested in answering that question. Everybody is so divided about this story now. If pro-Trump people look into it, nobody would believe them. If anti-Trump people look into it, nobody would believe them.
A lot of Russian conservatives were proud. They said: “Look at what Russians can do! Only 90 people with $2 million made America scared! We are strong!” And for conservative people here, they see that Americans have CNN, Radio Free Europe, etc., that cover Russia. They say, “Why can’t we establish groups in America and have our own influence?” That's how conservative people think here. They think this was normal.
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