Online trolls are being ordered to spread information in support of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine from an old arms factory in Russia, new research funded by the UK government suggests.
The new study details how the Russian president’s regime is using openly-recruited trolls to post pro-Moscow messages on social media and in the comment sections of news websites.
The social media accounts targeted by the trolls include those of British prime minister Boris Johnson, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the researchers said.
Social media accounts of bands and musicians including Daft Punk, David Guetta, Tiesto and Rammstein also appear to have been targeted by the disinformation operation.
Activities on Twitter and Facebook were detected, but were found to be particularly concentrated on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok where research is constrained. The research said TikTok influencers are being paid to amplify pro-Moscow narratives.
One of the techniques allegedly used by the trolls is amplifying genuine messages by legitimate social media users that happen to be consistent with the Kremlin’s viewpoint, in order to evade the platforms’ measures to combat disinformation.
A key role in the network is said to be performed by a Telegram channel called “Cyber Front Z”, with the letter Z signifying Russian support for the war.
Its headquarters is allegedly located in rented space in St Petersburg’s Arsenal Machine-building Factory, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.
The group seems to have learned from the tactics used by QAnon conspiracy theorists and from the Islamic State terror group, the researchers said.
Manipulation of polls in Western media was also observed in the study, including the skewing of results of surveys that has asked respondents whether they supported international sanctions against Russia.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and its shady troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin’s illegal war.
“The UK government has alerted international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations.”
The Foreign Office was not identifying the researchers behind the work amid concerns over their safety.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “These are insidious attempts by Putin and his propaganda machine to deceive the world about the brutality he’s inflicting on the people of Ukraine.
“This evidence will help us to more effectively identify and remove Russian disinformation and follows our decisive action to block anyone from doing business with Kremlin-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik.”
The troll factory is suspected to be linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder of the Internet Research Agency – which has been accused of using internet trolling to interfere in the election that saw Donald Trump win the US presidency in 2016.