By Elena Onu*

In the Russian Federation, there is an organizational structure, formed from journalists, bloggers, and online commentators –unofficially named “the Kremlin’s Troll Army” [1]. This structure upholds the pro-Russian propaganda, shaping a positive image toward the policies of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and a negative one toward the West [2].

Each year, Moscow allocates between 5 and 7 billion dollars for the pro-Russian campaign that is carried out on the Internet in NATO AND EU member states. The funds are distributed, inclusively, to some outlets located abroad, e.g., Slovakia, with the goal of undermining trust in these geopolitical structures. The money is funneled directly through the Russian Embassy or the grant money offered by the Russian Government to these abroad civic organization [3]. Various online articles had shown that the “Kremlin’s Troll Army” operates, since 2014, as a juridical entity by the name of “Internet Research Agency” (OOO “Internet Issledovaniia”) [4]. The organization was founded by Mihail Ivanovici Bîstrov, a close acquaintance of Vladimir Putin, ex-boss of the Directive for Internet Business of the Moskoviski district in Saint Petersburg [5]. Among board directors of the OOO “Internet Issledovaniia,” there have already been mentioned the name of Mihail Ivanovici Bîstrov, as well as that of Timur Prokopenko – vice president of the directorate of internal affairs within the presidential administration [6], with the competent authorities in the management of the presidential-election projects — [7], as general director [8].

Brief History

The core of the “Troll Army” emerged somewhere in the early 2000s, when a consistent number of online Russian commentators have committed themselves, through viral messages on the Internet, to the politics of President Vladimir Putin. They were nicknamed [9] trolls or nașiboti (term resulted from a combination of Godfather, attributed to the disciples of the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Ours,” that was implicated in activities of sustaining the image of the Kremlin leader online, after the defeat of Viktor Yanukovich in the Ukranian elections, [10] and the word “robot”)[11]. The first journalistic investigation concerning the existence of so-called “web brigades” — “sponsored” by the Russian state and coordinate by the Federal Services for Security of the Russia Federation (FSB) — were first published in 2003, under the signature of a journalist from Saint Petersburg Anna Polianskaia, [12] a historian Andrei Krivov, and a programmer Ivan Lomko [13].

In 2009, the Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky affirmed that the structure, founded in 2000-2001, had the task of “discrediting some positions or uncomfortable texts for authorities by posting comments on blogs and discussion forums.” [14] Afterwards, in the year 2012 [15], a group of hackers, going by the name of “Russian Arm of Anonymous,” discovered hundreds of emails belonging to the youth movement “Nași.” In these emails, discovered between November 2010 – December 2011, payment methods were explained to the pro-Kremlin commentators [16].

The British publication The Guardian, too, has notified the very idea of the existence of a pro-Kremlin group. This group led a “troll network,” having as an objective the makeup of a positive image of Vladimir Putin [17] and discrediting the Russian opposition and the internet internal and external media, that were not on Moscow regime’s taste [18].

Relevant data were, however, published in September 2013, when the editor of the weekly Novaya Gazeta, Andrei Sosnikov, managed to infiltrate the troll network. He then published an extensive journalistic investigation on the existence, in Saint Petersburg, of an organizational structure that coordinates the activities of the pro-Kremlin commentaries on the Internet [19]. The idea was also confirmed on September 26, 2013, by the publication Novaya Gazeta, according to which the organization, named “Internet Research Agency” (OOO “Agentstvo Internet Issledovaniia”[20]), operates in Moscow, too [21]. The agency was founded on September 26, 2013, as a limited liability company, its founder being Mihail Kurkin, and the general director, Nikolai Ciumakov [22]. In March 2014, the successor of this company was created, “Internet Issledovaniia”/”The Internet Research” [23]. According to the Russian business registers, the headquarters of the new organization has been registered in Saint Petersburg, on Balsaia Raznocinnaia Street, Nr. 17 [24].

In 2014, The Moscow Times [25] – an English-published Russian weekly newspaper – informed that, for over 10 years, the Kremlin has tried to limit freedom of expression on the Internet, turning even to the “paid trolls to monitor forums and to post nationalist and xenophobic comments” [26]. After that, sources close to the Russian Presidential Administration, quoted by the same Moscow Times, confirmed that trolling is being used in manipulating European and American opinion [27], as well as pro-Putin messages being posted in the virtual realm by Russian expands in Germany, India, and Thailand [28]. The existence of “Kremlin’s troll army” became a certainty in 2015, when the Russian journalist, Andrei Sosnikov, published, in the pages of the weekly “Moi Raion,” an extensive investigation focused on the modus operandi of virtual entities and identities used by the trolls [29]. The journalist thus brought to attention that the structure is financed by the holding “Condocer” [30], led by the Russian oligarch Evgheni Viktorovich Progojin [31], a close ally of Vladimir Putin, called informally the Russian president’s “chef” [32].

Since 2014, “the Kremlin’s troll army” has had its central headquarters in a 5-story building on Savuskina Street, Nr. 55, in Saint Petersburg [33]. The previous headquarters was located in the Olghino district, of the same city, [34], and the personnel being known as the “alghinti” [35].

According to some ex-trolls [36], 50% of the structure’s staff “truly believed in what they were doing” [37], and 50% of them are “teens who want to make money,” “illiterates from a political point of view” [38]. Lists of accounts on the Russian blogging platform LiveJournal, operated by the trolls, having tasks and discussing topics imposed by them [39], have been remised by the Russian journalist, Andrei Sosnikov. This was done in an investigation published, in 2015, in the pages of the weekly Moi Raion [40]. Although the members of the managerial team are not known to the troll teams, the first one interacted exclusively with the so-called “team leaders.”

In 2013, the coordinator of the structure’s activity was the actress Maria Kuprasevici, one of the previous organizers of the International Forum of the Seligher Youth [41]. In 2015, within the structure, 400 individuals operated [42], paid without any legal documents [43], exclusively on the basis of a confidentiality commitment [44]. As for organizing, if at the end of 2013 [45], Novaya Gazeta informed that the Internet Research Agency had in subordination a blogging and an online commenting directive. Also, 7 departments — for quick reaction, creation, commentators, bloggers, specialists in social networks, CEO and journalists — were organized the same year [46]. In March 2015 [47], the structure counted 5 departments, specialized in activities on the blogging platform “LiveJournal,” news production, creation for image denigrating and content for undermining certain political targets, production of video content, and the crafting of pro-Kremlin comments on the forums of municipal websites [48]. According to Novaya Gazeta, in September 2013, the daily tasks of an online troll consisted of 100 posts [49]. The functionality of the whole troll network was realized by the “Yandex-Market” principle [50], an online magazine where each product comes with comments from users, who offer indications about the product’s quality [51].

In the initial stage, the trolls study the demographics of the leading social networks in the targeted country or state, the online behavior of citizens, relevant hashtags on Twitter and on discussion groups that root for individual political leaders, e.g., the American president Barack Obama. After that, they issue detailed studies of the visited media websites (example, The Blaze, The Huffington Post, Fox News), including the audience, owners, political editors or their stances on Russia and the USA [52]. The activity is on demand [53], in groups of around 20 people, each member being controlled by 3 editors, who verify the posts and perceive fines if these do not conform to the ideological criteria or are copied from other sources [54].

Distribution and use of social media platforms in the Russian Federation

Most posts of the “troll army” are on socializing platforms. Sociological data have shown that Russian citizens are amongst the most avid users of social media in the world. Monthly, they spend around 8-9 hours on such platforms, two times the world average. Russian platforms are controlled by the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, the main investor of Digital Sky Technologies, who holds an important share of Vkontakte” and “” and who represents the American social networks Facebook and Twitter in Russia. Moreover, in 2007, SUP Media purchased, controlled together with Aleksandr Mamut and Alisher Usmanov, has also acquired LiveJournal.

Vkontakte is the market leader in Russia. The platform was launched in 2007 and has continued to implement new features. It is a serious competitor to Facebook in Russia and various Russian-speaking countries. Active users are young, most of whom are students, although company representatives claim that more than 60% of their public represent users over the age of 25. Due to its dominant position, this social-media website has a significant impact on general statistics of social-media users in Russia [55].

Odnoklassniki focuses on message and photo exchange. It was founded in 2006, preceding Vkontakte and is part of the platform. Some of its features include the ability to evaluate others’ photos, see who had viewed your profile, chat online, and a live list of your account’s visitors (with links to their profiles). Odnoklassniki has a relatively high demographics of between aged 25-35, users being “older” than Vkontakte public [56]. was launched in 2007 and attracts users with its integrated e-mail platform, the most popular in Russia. The low number of visitors proves the fact that many land on the website as a consequence of having an email account on MoiMir has the standard features of a social-media website. Long term, it is hard to see it operating independently, given that it falls under the ownership of Odnoklassniki [57].

“LiveJournal”/ „ЖЖ” is not a social-media website in the sense of sharing links and actualizing your state, but more of a blogging website focused on creating content, with features similar to a social-media platform. It was launched as an online platform for Russian journalists and intellectuals who wish to have freedom of expression. Although it is a .com domain, Russian Internet users have said to use it, especially for its ЖЖ” Russian initials. „According to the company’s website, Russian users on LiveJournal make up to 30 million monthly users, 5 million Cyrillic accounts and 250 million posts [58].

Facebook has quickly won Russian users, at the expense of Vkontakte, especially after it offering a Russian interface. It attracts a young public that already had international Facebook friends, with whom they had previously connected on the common platform. This demographic represents at least 10% of Russia’s population. The usability of the platform is superior when comparing it to Vkontakte. The majority of the users continue to hold accounts on both platforms.

Twitter has expanded rapidly in Russia, especially after its importance as a means of information was certified. Prime-Minister Dmitri Medvedev is a regular user, along with millions of compatriots [59].

Network analysis applied to the troll Army

The network analysis had monitored the evolution of the leading social-media platforms between August 2012 – August 2014, when the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

Using the Russian search engine Yandex has revealed the fact that during the indicated time spam, on Vkontakte, the number of users had increased, reaching 23.4 million users in August 2014 (52.2% of the online Russian population), from 15.3 million in August 2012. The average time spent on social media was 20 minutes.



On Facebook, the number of users has unexpectedly increased since December 2013. It registered 10.7 million users (24.7% of the online Russian population) in May 2014, most of whom were part of the Russian elites. Afterwards, the numbers stagnated. The average time spent was 3 minutes.


Source: Populyarnye socialnye seti v rossii 2015

Concerning the Odnoklassniki platform, the number of active users has increased with 16.5 million (38.1% of the online population), from only 12.4 million users in August 2012. The average time spent was 25 minutes.


Source: Populyarnye socialnye seti v rossii 2015

MoiMir has registered an increase in its number of users, from 18.9 million (43.8% of the online population) to 14.7 million in August 2012, with a daily average of 9 minutes.


Source: Populyarnye socialnye seti v rossii 2015

In Twitter’s case, research indicates that in July, of 2012, only 6.4% of the Russian accounts were used on a daily basis, their numbers reaching 60%. In August 2014, the number of daily active users reached 60%

In comparison, the data published by the non-governmental organization TNS Russia, NGO that monitors social media, has confirmed the increase in the number of users on Russian social-media platforms. The TNS research had supervised the social-media accessing statistics between November 2012 – April 2015. During this period, it analyzed Vkontakte, Odnoklasnikki, Facebook, Moi Mir, Instagram, and LinkedIn [60]. Vkontakte, Odnoklasnikki, Facebook and Moi Mir have had a high and clear increase, while Instagram registered a constant evolution [61]. On the other hand, Twitter’s microblogging services recorded the most top growth. If at the end of the year 2012 monthly traffic was about 10 million, in 2015, it reached nearly 202 million posts on iPad and 287 million on personal computers and laptops, situating second after Vkontakte – 21.5 million.

In 2015, the social-media platforms’ rankings, in Russia, changed – Facebook taking surpassing Moi Mir, that previously ranked third after Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.

The number of users on social media networks in Russia (millions per month)



Twitter’s userbase increase has been closely linked to the new form of pro-Russian propaganda used by Moscow [62].

The Guardian has confirmed that the “troll army” posted comments on websites of various publications, i.e., on articles, blogs, chat-rooms and forums [63]. Afterwards, the newspaper has brought to attention that the most vehement pro-Russian comments were on the topic concerning Ukraine. Most comments came from users that suddenly appeared on the background of the escalation of events in Ukraine. The Guardian has noticed a correlation between these comments and repetitive phrases, that indicated the use a template formula. [64]

After their investigation, the Russian journalists from Novaya Gazeta confirmed that the trolls had a mission to model international opinion on the Ukrainian conflict, a topic that had and has an essential part in the pages of foreign publications [65]. The theme was also addressed by, where reactions even appeared, the most fervent being by Leonid Bershidsky, columnist for Bloomberg [66].

Reviewing and monitoring 20,500 pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts has revealed o form of data manipulation on the Russian Internet network – Runet – carried by the “troll army.” Twitter was no exception, more and more users noticing similar messages around the time of the events in Ukraine. The flux of newly-registered accounts was done through a short time spam, the new users registering only with their birthdate.


Source :

Alec Luhn, American economic analyst, who works for TNS Russia, has searched on Twitter for the constitutive networks through phrases such as “pro-Kremlin,” “pro-Russian trolls” and even the hashtag #Kremlingbots (#Кремлеботы). He took several screenshots of some users, who confessed the online trolling activity. [67]

The analyst has gathered many accounts that posted key phrases, which revealed either the constituency of a large community or a list of users presented on a screenshot. These were classified in groups marked with the letters A, B, C, and D.


Grup A was formed starting with a message delivered by PressRuissa – a parody account (currently suspended) that posted messages containing a mix of satire and comments of misinformation and bias. The Russian trolls posted simultaneously, on March 13, 2015, the same message according to which “Novaya Gazeta hails their activities.” The most active accounts have those of the users and Falcon News Intl. (PressRuissa).

Group B had in its components trolls highlighted through their tendency of posting the same message in Russian and English, with the goal of inducing the idea of a possible error in their software control “RSS in offline mode” – for example, the account Леонид Верхратский (@ GCL2BUugsq4n5JL) 04.01.2015

Group C has visited the pro-Russian trolls that had posted about a supposed offensive of pro-Russian forces on the city of #Mariupol. Example, the account

The sample for group D represented troll accounts that disseminated the war message “I believe that the great war will begin!” Example: the account #RussiainvadedUkraine and #russia hashtags were used[68].

All four groups were united into a single set of data, resulting in a total of 17,590 Twitter accounts. The metadata confirmed that the majority of these accounts were trolls. 93% did not have a location indicated on their profile, 96% gave only information about their timezone, and 97% did not save favorite sections on Twitter [69]. Also, despite the fact that they have produced an average of 2,830 accounts, these almost never had any interaction with other Twitter users.



An even more surprising result came when the previous relations of the troll groups were reviewed. Even if the evidence were taken from four different sources, the combined network has proven to be intensely interconnected. All of the 17,590 accounts revealed the existence of a closed interconnection and the lack of isolated clusters of accounts. This fact sharply contrasts with the starting idea.

The final set of data did not present the groups isolated, thus firmly sustaining the idea that the trolls have been created and controlled by a single agency. [70]

The results show that the periods in which the trolls were registered had coincided with the starting of the Euromaidan protest in Ukraine, 2013, and afterward with the pro-Russian military interventions in Eastern Ukraine, Spring of 2014 [71]. Concerning the other platforms, after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, research concerning the trolls’ age, gender, regional distribution and message content have shown that starting with March, of 2014, Vkontakte has held a top position, having the biggest monthly audience and the most active users.



Comparing it with the 2013 statistics, after the annexation of Crimea, Facebook has almost doubled its userbase. Also, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki have managed to keep their top spots on the market, but the overlapping of their audience has increased significantly.


Vkontakte had the most significant and quickest growth, reaching a record number of visitors in November 2015, by Kiev’s decision to stop electricity supplies in Crimea. Vkontakte’s audience was similar to the one of the tv channel Russia 1 – the main Russian TV channel – and bigger than other national tv stations [72].



Final Remarks

Throughout this study, I wanted to clarify the idea according to which the analysis of social networks is useful for identifying the new way of acting of the Russian propaganda, via its “troll army.” Their activity intensified during the conflict in Ukraine and had as its main goal to shape international opinion by diverting attention and preventing a debate on the subject. Also, it is clear that besides the development of social-media platforms in the Russian Federation, network analysis has become more relevant in identifying and tackling new propaganda technologies used by the Russian authorities starting with the Euromaidan in Ukraine.

The Russian trolls insistently and systematically promoted, in key moments of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, ideas of the Russian propaganda. Once the first report was published – named “Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine” – on May 25, 2016, issued by the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs, it was confirmed the idea that posted messages by the Russian trolls can be framed in the concept of “metanarrative.” This type of narrative consists in resuming the promotion of some ideological theses specific for the Soviet period, with the goal of creating confusion in the reader’s mind and to generate doubt through the launching of a multitude of versions and explanations concerning the same event.

* Graduate of the Master of Security Studies program of the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work of the University of Bucharest.

[1] Person who posts random online comments, which are off-topic or provocative.

[2] Disclosure from within “Putin’s troll army.”

[3] Security expert Jaroslav Nad, from the “European Center for Policy Institute”; Robert Vass, vice-president of the Central-European Strategic Council (Slovak publication “” –





[8]  .

[9] From 2015

[10] Founded in Russia, in 2005, with the help of the Presidential Administration through the re-organization of the youth movement “Iduscie/Does who march together” (


[12] Former assistant to Galina Starovoitova, Russian politician, assassinated in November 1998.








[20] According to investigations conducted by the independent newspaper, Moy Rational (My District)



[23] Located near the Olghino railway station in St. Petersburg.


[25] The Moscow Times, the only English newspaper in the Russian Federation, owned by the Sanoma Independent Media Publishing House, set up in March 1992 by a group of Dutch investors headed by Derk Sauer. /


[27] At the beginning of May 2014, administrators of The Guardian website warned readers about the identification of a pro-Kremlin campaign organized by the trolling method on the British daily website. (Http://



[30] Activity: food, restaurants, real estate.


[32] The company organizes festive meals attended by Russian officials. (Http://


[34] Russian journalist, Andrei Soşnikov, who has infiltrated the network in 2013, said the old headquarters was in a small building, with the lack of space available for doing business. (Http://


[36] whose identities were revealed by the Western media in 2015: Tatiana N (22 years old, hired in May 2014) – owner of the blog with user name tuyqer898; Lena N – dismissed after refusing to comply with the Agency’s policy regarding the assassination of Boris Nemtov; Natalia Drozdova (real name Tatiana Kazakbaieva), holder of a blog on LiveJournal, Twitter, Facebook and vKontakte accounts, and a Google+ profile interested in “art, psychology and everything that happens in world”; most of his posts are irrelevant, such as a whole parody of the “Fifty Shades of Gray” movie, or the fact that “Facebook” has eliminated the “I feel fat” status on its pages; but also has firm views on the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program; Aleksei Ivankovski (; Roland of St. Petersburg, posting under the nickname “conyarder”; Athlete Kirill (aladorzam); a reserve officer in Samara (glen555); Aleksei Semionov – “student” (magiclex). (Http://





[41] “Seligher” is a pan-Russian youth forum organized annually in the form of a tent camp starting with 2005 at the initiative of the Naši Youth Movement and the Federal Agency for Rosmolodioj Youth Problems, to Seligher Lake in the Tver region. (Http:// Russian President Vladimir Putin and his assistant Vladislav Surkov have often attended this forum as guests.  (–19032015172200),


[43] According to some lawyers in St. Petersburg, it is extremely rare for such an enterprise to work entirely “on the black market” without paying taxes and without formally registering its employees. (


[45] September 07, 2013.


[47] According to the testimony of Marat Burkhard, former troll, granted to “Free Europe” (March 25, 2015).








[55]  [Accesat la 17.11.2015].




[59]  [Accesed on November, 11, 2015]

[60] [Accessed on June 07, 2015]

[61] [Accessed on June 09, 2015]








[69] [Accessed on February 28, 2015].



[72] public [Accessed on March 06, 2014].


Clark, Robert M.(2010), Intelligence Analysis: A target-centric approach, CQ Edition

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