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Russian-based Troll Farm Advances Moscow Influence Campaign

Cyber Front Z, operates as a troll farm that hires “social commentators, spammers, content analysts, programmers, IT specialists, and designers” to run social media posts and other comments intended to advance Moscow’s line concerning its war against Ukraine, and to do at scale, with fake personae deployed to give the impression of a mass movement, as described by Vice. Cyber Front Z’s home base and public face is on Telegram, but its trolls operate in other media.

It’s noteworthy that the Front’s operators need to “fire up their VPNs” to gain access to other, largely blocked, social networks, and also noteworthy that the VPNs themselves are currently in bad odor with the Kremlin, wary as it is of the VPNs’ reputation for anonymous circumvention of censorship.

Some Russian influence operations are more tightly focused. Vice reports elsewhere that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) last week exposed a bot farm operating out of Dnipropetrovsk but, according to the SBU, remotely controlled from Russia. The bots were smishing Ukrainian soldiers with resistance-is-futile texts.

“The outcome of events is predetermined! Be prudent and refuse to support nationalism and leaders of the country who discredited themselves and already fled the capital!!!” the texts said, with the triple-exclamation point emphasis in the original. The guy in whose apartment they found the trolls’ server said he had no idea what was going on.

Cyber Front Z’s Telegram channel urges Russians to post comments, share pro-Kremlin content, and disparage anyone who criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kapitanov tells followers that posting such comments is a citizen’s patriotic duty to support their military’s war on Ukraine.

“We remind you that Ukrainian Nazis commit atrocities and will soon be punished for this,” Kapitanov wrote on Thursday in another post. “We paint everything in the colors of the Russian tricolor and distribute our symbols Z and V.”

This public army of trolls pushing disinformation across the internet is but one arm of Cyber Front Z’s operation. A report published last week by independent St. Petersburg–based media outlet Fontanka revealed that behind all its patriotic rhetoric and claims of a popular movement of concerned citizens, it’s just another Kremlin-linked troll farm, where people are paid to post disinformation in a targeted and coordinated manner. Fontanka reporter Ksenia Klochkova went undercover as a paid troll at Cyber Front Z and was offered a monthly salary of around $431.96. She was given access to fake accounts and instructed what to write and where to post her comments.

Klochkova reported that she was one of 100 people on her shift all doing the exact same thing: posting a minimum of 200 comments on content as directed by the Cyber Front Z supervisors, creating a flood of 20,000 pieces of supposedly organic pro-Kremlin content over a few hours.

Cyber Front Z, therefore, has two divisions: the public-facing Telegram channel where volunteers are directed to post disinformation under their own names across the internet, and a private professional troll army who are paid to post similar disinformation using fake identities. The end result is the same, with comments mimicking Kremlin narratives flooding Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube posts. All new recruits are asked to contact Kapitanov in order to join Cyber Front Z’s troll army.

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