News Brief

Russian Trolls Targeted Clinton Before She Was Candidate

Russian internet trolls were told to attack U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even before she announced she was running for last year’s election, according to a former employee of a Kremlin-linked “troll factory.”

Speaking to the independent Russian TV station Dozhd, “Maxim”— a pseudonym — said he was one of 200 staff at the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) focused on stirring up online turmoil in the United States, and one of their chief tasks was spreading damaging information about the former U.S. Secretary of State.

Maxim said he worked for the agency’s so-called “foreign desk,” where he and his colleagues were told to highlight Clinton’s wealth and alleged corruption scandals — at least two years before Americans went to the ballot box.

Conversely, he said foreign desk staff were prohibited from promoting anything about Russia, in case it gave their identity away, and undermined their core mission. The goal was “to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings,” Maxim was quoted as saying by Meduza. But he said they learned that Americans “don’t really care about it [Russia]” anyway.

The IRA trained “foreign desk” staff in the nuances of American debates on issues such as LGBTQ rights and gun control so their online interventions would be more convincing. They were also told to watch the TV series “House of Cards” to learn about American politics.

Dozhd said it had verified that Maxim worked for 18 months at the agency — which has been linked with past Russian government disinformation operations in relation to Ukraine and Syria — before he quit in early 2015.

And managers all but spelled out to staff that the government was their ultimate employer, telling them they were performing a patriotic duty. “Every country has their own kind of organization that defends their national interests and distributes civil unrest,” Maxim said they were told. “This is information war, and it’s official.”