Inside Russia’s Notorious ‘Internet Research Agency’ Troll Farm


When two South Carolina professors studied Pro-Vladimir Putin social media posts in early 2022, they noticed a pattern - the Tweets, TikTok, and Instagram posts had the hallmarks of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin-backed trolls accused of meddling in the 2016 US election.

During Russian holidays and on weekends, the activity dropped off, suggesting the trolls had regular work schedules. Similar or identical text, photos, and videos were found posted across various accounts and platforms. An analysis by Clemson University and ProPublica found that the posts appeared at defined times consistent with the IRA workday.

“These accounts express every indicator that we have to suggest they originate with the Internet Research Agency,” said Professor Darren Linvill, who has been studying IRA accounts for years.

So what have the IRA trolls been up to?

Russia's Notorious Internet Research Agency Troll Farm
One of the ‘hubs’ linked to the IRA in Saint Petersburg, Russia

The rise of the IRA

Russia has been using social media platforms to attack political enemies since at least 2013 under the auspices of the IRA, according to a US Senate Intelligence Committee report.

Inside Russia’s Notorious ‘Internet Research Agency’ Troll Farm

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When two South Carolina professors studied Pro-Vladimir Putin social media posts in early 2022, they noticed a pattern - the Tweets, TikTok, and Instagram posts had the hallmarks of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin-backed trolls accused of meddling in the 2016 US election.

During Russian holidays and on weekends, the activity dropped off, suggesting the trolls had regular work schedules. Similar or identical text, photos, and videos were found posted across various accounts and platforms. An analysis by Clemson University and ProPublica found that the posts appeared at defined times consistent with the IRA workday.

“These accounts express every indicator that we have to suggest they originate with the Internet Research Agency,” said Professor Darren Linvill, who has been studying IRA accounts for years.

So what have the IRA trolls been up to?

Russia's Notorious Internet Research Agency Troll Farm
One of the ‘hubs’ linked to the IRA in Saint Petersburg, Russia

The rise of the IRA

Russia has been using social media platforms to attack political enemies since at least 2013 under the auspices of the IRA, according to a US Senate Intelligence Committee report.

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A Justice Department indictment filed in 2018 and other reports have described hundreds of paid Russian trolls operating disinformation campaigns with an annual budget in the millions. A management group oversees the various departments - graphics, search engine optimization, IT, and finance departments among them. 

The trolls are told to watch American TV shows like House of Cards and are given grammar lessons. To hide their Russian identity, the trolls use proxy servers, communicate in English, and use fake identities to establish hundreds of accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. Within time, those accounts gain followers and became more influential.

Russia's Notorious Internet Research Agency Troll Farm

How big an operation is it?

The IRA had an estimated 400 staff working 12-hour shifts by 2015, including 80 trolls focused on disrupting the US political system. They create content on nearly every social media network including VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook). Managers monitor the workplace by CCTV and are ‘obsessed’ with page views, posts, clicks, and traffic, according to the US Senate report and The New York Times.

One IRA employee, Lyudmila Savchuk, described work shifts during which she was required to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts, and 150 to 200 comments on other trolls' postings. She was reportedly paid 41,000 roubles ($778) a month in cash.

Russia's Notorious Internet Research Agency Troll Farm

Does the IRA act alone?

Several years ago, the trolls were believed to be part of a larger interference operation known as Project Lakhta, which also aimed to disrupt the US democratic process, spread distrust, incite civil unrest, and polarize Americans by promoting socially divisive issues with an emphasis on racial divisions and inequality, according to the US Justice Department.

Project Lakhta is accused of hiding its activities by operating through a number of companies including the Internet Research Agency, MediaSintez, NovInfo, Nevskiy News, Economy Today, National News, Federal News Agency, and International News Agency. 

Russia's Notorious Internet Research Agency Troll Farm

Are all of the IRA activities online? 

In the past, the Russians recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns, and stage political rallies. The accused Russians and their co-conspirators pretended to be grassroots activists. According to the Justice Department, Americans did not know that they were communicating with Russians. 

The trolls remained active long after the 2016 election. In one instance, they organized a rally to support Trump and another to oppose him - both in New York, on the same day.

Why haven’t they been arrested?

The US indicted - but did not prosecute - more than a dozen Russia-based men and women linked to the IRA troll factory in 2018. With no extradition treaty, it is unlikely the Russians will ever stand trial in the US.

There are suspicions that the Justice Department’s case against the IRA might not be as air-tight as the government would have liked. In 2020, the Department dropped its criminal prosecution of two Russian companies accused of interfering in the US election.

Russia's Notorious Internet Research Agency Troll Farm


Is the IRA still in business?

US Cyber Command claimed it knocked the troll factory off-line during the 2018 congressional elections but they may have regrouped.

In the shape-shifting world of online trolls, it’s difficult to know if the IRA is behind the pro-Putin/anti-Ukraine social media posts but the UK isn’t taking any chances.

Britain's Foreign Office imposed sanctions on the Internet Research Agency in March 2022, along with two alleged disinformation websites, New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review. The European Union also sanctioned the IRA, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and several other high-profile Russian officials.

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