The Russian "troll" factory in St. Petersburg, Russia — which is at the center of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians who allegedly interfered with the U.S. election — is just that: A factory.
In a new interview with the Washington Post, former troll Marat Mindiyarov described the factory as Orwellian, complete with an "assembly line" of lies.
"Your first feeling, when you ended up there, was that you were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line," Mindiyarov said. "The volumes were colossal — there were huge numbers of people, 300 to 400, and they were all writing absolute untruths."
While much of Mueller's focus is on Russian intervention in the U.S. election using platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Mindiyarov's primary role was to comment on the news in Russia on forums such as LiveJournal and Russian news sites.
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"When I was there, there were sanctions [by the European Union and the United States in response to Russia's intervention in Ukraine] and the ruble started falling," he said. "I was writing everything that was the opposite: how wonderful our life was, how wonderful it is that the ruble was strengthening, and that kind of absurdity. That sanctions were going to make us stronger and so on and so forth."
Because Mindiyarov is a teacher by trade and spoke English well, he was also asked if he wanted to transfer to the Facebook commenting department where he'd be paid double his roughly $700 a month pay. But since tricking readers into thinking you are an American is a key part of the troll, Mindjyarov said each person had to take what amounted to an English proficiency test before transferring.
"I failed the test because you had to know English perfectly," he said. "The reader must not have the feeling that you are a foreigner. The language demands were in fact very high, they were demanding high-end translators, basically."
One of the questions on the test specifically asked about then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
"I first had to write something about, 'What do you think about vegetarians?' or something like that," he said. "Then it was, 'What do you think of Hillary Clinton? What chances does she have to win in the U.S. election?' You had to write at great length about this. … The main thing was showing that you are able to show that you can represent yourself as an American."
Mindiyarov said he believes the tactics that were being used in the factory after he left in 2015 became more sophisticated, but that they worked because Americans were used to this kind of deception.
"Who really reads the comments under news articles, anyway?," he said when asked whether the tactics worked in Russia. "Especially when they were so obviously fake."
"But for Americans, it appears it did work," he continued. "They aren't used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it's accepted to answer for your words."