Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
City description: propaganda blogger
St. Petersburg has become famous throughout Russia as the cradle of information wars and “internet-trolls,” who settled in an elite residential complex in Olgino, and later moved closer to the city center. A former colleague of this organization told us on condition of anonymity how the gigantic propaganda machine works and why it is impossible to last long in this job.
Jobs in this wonderful place are scattered throughout headhunters’ resources. Companies who are looking for a “copywriter” or “content managers” appear very different. Conspiracy does not work for two reasons: all indicate a salary of 40-45 thousand rubles, and the address “town of Stara Selo/ town of Black River.” In the job description, a minimum of information is given about who, where and what is needed – all of it calculated so that such a high salary would discourage the desire to know where you would have to settle. As it turns out, it works: many came here after a long and painful search for work, almost in despair. Personally, I have recently arrived from a major regional center and–having education in journalism–in late August, just sent a resume to one of the dozens of ads placed in an online job search. The call with an invitation to come for an interview with the media holding “Internet Research” came after a couple of days.
The interview took place in a beautiful new office building at #55 Savushkina Street, which occupies four floors. To get there just off the street is not possible: they have a harsh security turnstile system. If you do not have the capacity cards, then you have to write an explanatory note, which includes your passport details.
The interview begins with you being handed a form to fill out. On it you provide information about yourself, including point of residence, place of actual residence, full information regarding former employment, information on your parents’ place of work, etc. After that they ask you a couple of questions and request you “re-write” any relevant news. There is a feeling that they take anyone who can prove that they can write and speak in Russian. At the same time you get no information about where you’ve ended up: “media holding, several websites, we need to develop the traffic, the salary is above average.” If before that you were unable to find work for several months, you agree immediately after the words “forty five thousand rubles.” This is the base salary of all the ordinary employees – whether they are “bloggers” (who post in LiveJournal and social networks), “content-managers,” “CEO-specialists” or creators of patriotic “demotivators,” who are called “illustrators.” Those who work their way up to more senior positions receive more – 55 000, 60 000 and so on. During the hiring they virtually don’t ask you about your personal political beliefs.
The first day of work. From 9:00am until 5:30pm. “you have to make 20 news pieces, uniqueness has to be about 75%, the news has to be relevant, here is a login and password from the PC, get to work.” Everything reminds you of school – the offices are very much like “computer classes,” you cannot be late for even 2 minutes (they fine you for it), and you must leave work immediately after it finishes and not a minute later. In total, as I understood, the holding has 12 sites of various subjects, but all of them in one way or another touch on politics and Ukraine. Although the “business card” says the “Federal News Agency” (when calling on the phone from work, the majority of the employees from different departments present themselves specifically as employees of “FAN”), the majority of traffic is from the so-called “News Agency of Kharkiv” (ironically named as nahnews.com.ua). The site is apparently Ukrainian, but all its publications are made at Savushkina 55. There are several such “Ukrainian sites” in the media holding, including the famous “Antimaidan.” These faux sites do not make direct prevocational fakes, but re-write the news in a specific key: for example, separatists become “militias.” The “media holding” has been operating from July 2014.
For the first few days you simply do not know where you are and why you are re-writing this news, filling the sites with them. There is a feeling that this is some social experiment or a reality show: especially since in every open office where there are around 20-30 employees, there are surveillance cameras. There was no ideological brainwashing or regular briefings; everything is very simple and clear to virtually everyone who got hired: you can’t write bad about Putin, the insurgents are not terrorists, “you understand yourself….” There is a sense that the newcomers understand everything themselves where they ended up and what to write, if ideological instruction is conducted, it is at the level of chief editors. There are no planning meetings or general meetings. Speaking of ordinary employees: most often they are newcomers from other cities, all people with higher education, quite clever. There are many very young people with an informal look, with piercings and dreadlocks. In general the employees are divided into three categories: 1) “they are paying me and I don’t care, I don’t even know who this is:” many of these have families, loans and so on, 2) “yes, I know that this is a pro-Kremlin troll factory, but to hell with mental anguish – they pay me so it’s OK”, 3) “I am waging information warfare against the fascist junta!” The latter are in an overwhelming minority. Perhaps they are the only ones who truly love their work. In our department there were, I think, only two of these.
The “media holding” itself takes up only one floor of the building. The other floors are occupied by other workers of the propaganda front: including those very “trolls” which have become famous throughout St. Petersburg, basically sharp-tongued mercenaries who flood each thread in social networks and blogs with aggressive comments. The workers of the “media holding” treat them with irony bordering nevertheless on some caution. I personally have not had a chance to chat with the “trolls,” but only saw them in the smoking area.
The unprofessionalism of the management of the “holding” can be felt already after only a week of work. The main goal is the number of views, visitors. The plan is to have their number (on all the sites of the holding in total) rise by 3000 people every day. At the same time they do not include weekends, holidays etc. – only “a five-year plan in one month.” The SEO department, which is supposed to promote the content of these sites, carries out blatant spamming (which is why many of the sites are blocked by Google and VKontakte). Given the way in which the staff is recruited, this is not surprising.
Meanwhile the leadership shakes up the site chiefs, they in turn demand “relevant news” from their workers, and the workers try to be the first to “re-write” the news of key Russian news agencies. To improve the traffic they take news regarding murder, rape and other crime in the Russian regions, celebrity gossip, about Pugacheva, Madonna and so on. News about gays is very popular: obviously, with a negative take on LGBT. If they mention feminism, then it is always with reference to the Ukrainian performers Femen, not otherwise. But, nevertheless, the main news of each site is – Putin, Crimea, “Novorossia.” At the same time the talk is constantly “we are on a startup, need to create more traffic so that we can reach self-sufficiency through advertising, it is only for now that we are living on money from investors,” but all of this is taken with a smile – because it is obvious even to the most naive here who these “investors” really are.
The decision to leave this “troll sanctuary” was maturing for quite a while. On one hand I understood that this, in all fairness, comfortable job with a reasonable wage for St. Petersburg will be difficult to find during the crisis: there was never a single day on Savushkina when I ran into difficulties of a technical nature. The problem was with the psychological severity of this work. By December my eye started twitching from nervous tension, and by night I had dreams where I was constantly re-writing news about Putin and Ukraine. In addition I hold liberal opinions, I have many friends who are opposition-minded, and at some point I realized that I am simply ashamed to tell people what I am doing. All these factors outweighed the considerations of comfort, and I quit with relief.