SOCIETY
Cybertroops for the domestic front
July 8, 2022
Ksenia Klochkova 
Journalist
Fontanka reporter Ksenia Klochkova was hired and worked a day for the cybertroops who write comments on social media to create a “patriotic backdrop”.
On March 11, the Cyber Front Z channel appeared on Telegram. The first post followed the next day announcing the recruitment of cybertroops: “The better our soldiers fight the plague in Ukraine, the more fakes and information attacks will come our way. The Ukrainian propaganda machine is in full swing. They wish us death and for Russia to collapse. Only together can we resist these attacks! We’re opening Operation Z Cyber Front to fight back on the information battlefield against the propagandists of the Kyiv junta funded by the West.” Spammers, commentators, content analysts, designers and programmers were needed. For inquiries about the terms, it was said to contact Alexander, who described himself in his Telegram profile as a “battalion commander on the cyber front.”
Chat with spammers, 2022. Source: Fontanka.ru
Mobilization

Alexander responded immediately, even though it was late – it was the night of March 15-16: “Salary – R45k a month. Schedule – 2/2. If you’re ready to work for us, then I can schedule an interview.”

It was scheduled for the very next day: an open slot remained at 14:00. The meeting was at Bloody Bones bar and grill on Korablestroiteley Street. To call this place a bar would be a stretch. One hall, several tables, a bar – all in a detached, ordinary-looking one-story building.

At 14:00 every table was already full. A dark-haired young man explains to two guys: “Now there’s a lot of fake information, which is why spontaneous protests are happening around Gostinka. All that ends sadly, because any conflict with the police always leads to 5-7 years in prison. So our movement is supposed to block these fakes.”

Red-haired Yana sits us next to a woman of about 50 and gives us questionnaires. The questions are rather general: place of work, study, address of residence, social networks, Covid vaccination. Yana waits for us to fill out the questionnaires and starts talking. “We’re working to expose fakes about the Ukraine issue. You probably read the news, you see there’s a lot of misinformation, including about civilian casualties. This is the Z patriotic movement. This project emerged recently, but the [patriotic] movement itself has been around for a long time,” she says. When asked what else the participants in the movement had been doing, she hesitates but then quickly finds what to say – they had been writing comments like those under items for sale on Ozon or Yandex. “You don’t believe those are real reviews, do you?” she smiles. The woman opposite shakes her head in understanding.

Yana continues: the work isn’t hard, you need to write comments on Telegram and other sites (except for VKontakte – there “the information is more or less neutral”).
“Chats and channels are found by curators, who tell you how to write rebuttals and what to emphasize in them."
There’s no need to write a book: 2-3 sentences and that's enough. “Our guys will work with you; they’ve been doing this stuff for several years already, they can help if anything.” You need to post 200 comments daily.

A hundred people work in a shift. The first two shifts started just the other day. The project is long-term: the first month you have to work from the office at Lenin Square, then you can go remote. Everything is under the table. The woman opposite asks: “Where is the guarantee that you’ll pay us?” Yana throws up her hands: you have to take our word”. 
Office, 2022. Source: Fontanka.ru
On the offensive

On Friday morning, there was a line at the Arsenal Plant gate. Several dozen people are trying to get to their new place of work. The guard is taking a long time writing down everyone's passport data. The new employees are rounded up by Viktor, a dark-haired man of about 30 in a black down jacket made by one of the brands that left Russia the other day, a small American flag on the sleeve. He introduces himself as a Tiktok curator. 

Just half an hour and the new cybertroops find themselves in the office. A small hallway with black and tricolor flags with the letter Z hanging on the wall. There are several offices leading from the hallway. There is a line into one – those who want to be part of the Telegram team. “I’m a little more used to this social network,” says a guy in frayed jeans to his friend. A young man looks out from another office and shouts to those waiting: “There are a lot of you for Telegram, come join me for YouTube.” Three people leave the line and go to him, and I go with them.

The guy who called us introduces himself: “My name is Alexander, I’m your curator. Our section will work on YouTube. About accounts: don't worry. I’ll distribute them to you. 
“Now about the tasks awaiting you. The main pool of work is to create a patriotic backdrop in the comments under trending videos and in the ‘politics and news’ category."
“A lot of average people simply don’t understand the goals and objectives of the special operation. We believe that the incursions of the Ukrainian Nazis into the Russian information space must be stopped and not allowed to fool our citizens! Cyber Front Z is going on the offensive!”
“Cybertroops”, 2022. Source: Fontanka.ru
The team

Alexander came to Russia several years ago from Kazakhstan and says that he understands the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine – he experienced similar feelings in his homeland. 

After the story about himself, Alexander moves on to political enlightenment. “Not everything in our country is awesome but apologizing for being Russian is a little wrong.

He repeats all the well-known postulates advanced by the Russian authorities: Kyiv refused to comply with the Minsk agreements and built up their arsenal, Europe financed the arms deliveries. “If there had been no ‘explosion’ on the 24th, there would have been one on the 30th, and not from our side. I can’t confirm it, but I think so. In the first week, no strikes were carried out on residential areas. And now ordinary people aren’t allowed to take shelter in safe places. The national battalions lock people in basements and apartments.”

I ask how he knows all that. Alexander is interrupted by Lyokha. He has been working for three shifts and is considered an experienced cyberwarrior in the team – he looks for videos and sends them to the chat with suggestions on how they can be commented on. 

Lyokha says that he knows everything from friends who were in the Donbass. “They, the Ukrainians, when they retreated, tried to make sure that there were as many victims among the civilian population as possible,” he says, responding to the question about civilians allegedly locked in basements. 

Lyokha once was in contact with the opposition but became disillusioned: take, he says, Alexander Shurshev, an activist from Youth Yabloko, who announced that he’d take a Georgian surname in 2006 in support of expelled Georgians, but a month later changed his mind and left his name. “This was telling for me:
“I saw how everyone in the opposition is inconsistent. And then I saw how the Kremlin works. They’re consistent, and this persistence is appealing."
You know: if your interests coincide with the Kremlin’s, then they won’t screw you,” he says, sitting on a pink beanbag chair while looking at his laptop.

I check with the curator who our employer is after all. “He has nothing to do with the Ministry of Defense, they are just caring businessmen,” Alexander responds. At this time, Masha enters the conversation. She’s a little over 20, a student, and also working on the side in SMM and at personal growth seminars. She seems to doubt that she came to the right place.
“Even before the shift started, she asked Sasha whether she had to write that Navalny was a traitor in comments if she didn’t consider him one."
The conversation was hypothetical. Sasha didn’t start laying down rules but suggested that they think about whether the donations sent to Navalny might have disappeared.
Telegram chat, 2022. Source: Fontanka.ru
Tasks

After meeting each other, everyone is added to the YouTube 1 Shift Z chat. Videos and reports from patriotic channels are dropped there. We have to comment on Yuri Dud’s new interview with history teacher Tamara Eidelman, remarks from Zelensky advisor Alexei Arestovich, the news broadcast of Current Time TV (labeled a foreign agent in Russia), a video published by a Ukrainian blogger with Russian military equipment, Biden’s speech and an Ilya Varlamov video. “You can finger Varlamov for showing Russian cities as grim dumps in his videos the last couple years,” Lyokha writes in the chat.

"All hands on deck! Let's support the president,” Alexander sends to the chat a link to Vladimir Putin's speech at Luzhniki posted in the Cyber Front Z channel. “We pay special attention to the young attendees who came to support the movement and for the concert.”
“Then he sends a screenshot of one comment, explaining that we should write just like this: 'I’m happy that young people are celebrating this landmark date! Indeed, the return of Crimea is a historic event!'"
Then a new instruction – we need to use the following statement for comments under other videos: “The weapons that the West is handing over to the Ukrainian army aren’t reaching the front but are being smuggled to EU border states, where they’re falling into the hands of criminal groups.”

When you’ve written comments from one account, you can switch to another – the curator sends passwords for more Google accounts. I get the names Steven Seleznev and Melor Lovzansky. The email for one of them has the domain “fabrica,” apparently a nod to the already well-known “troll factory” brand.

After a busy day, Alexander asks everyone to send him screenshots of comments and count them up. He adds: “You’ll be paid your salary on the 15th of every month. Sometimes we film ourselves handing over the money so there can’t be complaints later. Some are of the opinion that the project could be wrapped up by May 9, in which case you’ll be paid for the May shifts separately.”

I miss my shift the next day. In the afternoon, Alexei calls me: “I’m the curator of the project. Are you planning on staying?” In applications that show how the number appears in people's contacts, he is identified as Alexei Nekrylov. It was his namesake IP that we had to give at the Arsenal Plant gate on the first day to be let in.

In an official comment, Alexei Nekrylov told Fontanka that he was not recruiting for work on social media. He confirmed that he has an IP but refused to name in what sphere it worked.

P.S. The comments from Steven Seleznev and Melor Lovzansky written on YouTube on March 1x8 can be disregarded.

The original was published in Russian in Fontanka.

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