The building at 55 Savushkina St. on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, is unremarkable. It’s four stories high, made of concrete and shares a small parking lot with the apartment building next door.
But if you look a little closer, a few details stick out. For instance, the building is covered in windows, but each one is blocked by heavy drapes. And there are security cameras all over the building.
That’s what you can see from the outside. But what went on inside this building in 2015 has attracted a lot of attention in both U.S. and Russian media. The company that operated inside 55 Savushkina was called the Internet Research Agency. But unofficially, and more commonly, it was known as the “troll factory.”
Hundreds worked here, and 13 people, including a man with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, were recently named in an indictment connected to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. for providing support to the Russian Defense Ministry as it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, is alleged to be the man who funded the troll factory.
Internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk spent two months working undercover at the troll factory in 2015, creating fake social media accounts and writing blog posts meant to sow divisions in the U.S. and turn Russians against Americans.
Savchuk, a slight woman in her mid-30s, carries around a laptop with a campaign sticker for Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader in Russia who has been barred from running in the presidential election this weekend.
She sips a latte in a cafe outside St. Petersburg after dropping her kids off at day care for the afternoon.
“The factory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was a day shift, a night shift, and even shifts over the holidays. The factory worked every single second,” Savchuk says.
In the early days of her investigation into how fake social media accounts and trolls were affecting society, she was looking for a way in. It was late 2014 and she kept seeing advertisements in her social media feed geared to young, educated Russians looking to work in a creative field. A friend who worked at the troll factory tipped her off to what the ads were for. That same friend put in a good word for Savchuk with her bosses.
“My friend taught me the ropes. She told me that I had to write posts that were natural — like, for example, ‘I am cooking or I am walking down the street and I had this thought about how bad the [pro-Western] Ukrainian president is.’ ”
According to Savchuk, there were a few hundred people in the building at any given time, and the average pay started at $400 a month. The trolls were divided into groups. Those with the best English skills posed as Americans and created accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They’d use those troll accounts to stir up trouble on subjects such as U.S. elections or race relations.
Savchuk, who considers herself a freelance investigative journalist and activist for free and fair elections, spent most of her time at the troll farm writing as an imaginary Russian woman on the LiveJournal blogging platform, widely used in Russia today. Her posts were meant for Russian readers and were intended to inflame anti-American feelings.
“We made up a post about a new computer game created in the States — that even kids loved to play — and the theme of the game was slavery,” she says. “And this was to stir negative tensions towards Americans, as the creators of this game.”
That game never existed. Nor did the woman that Savchuk was posing as. A day at the troll factory could mean multiple layers of trolling subterfuge.
Each troll was given a list of topics to focus on by a supervisor. She says there were usually about 10 topics on the list. The United States, the European Union and Putin never left the list.
“It is laughable when Putin says that we do not know about trolls or trolls do not exist,” she says, “because when anyone looks thorough the Kremlin-controlled newspapers or state TV, they can see that the propaganda in that media is the exact same stuff that the trolls are posting.”
Savchuk worries about the deleterious effect of so much fake information on Russian society.
“For the public, it is harmful because we are being brainwashed,” she says. “We won’t be able to understand what is really happening. We are put against one another, and we are sliding back into the old ways when we were searching for the enemy among us — our friends and colleagues. That feeling from the Soviet times — I can feel it everywhere.”
Savchuk eventually leaked documents, videos and her story to the independent Russian news outlet Moy Rayon in 2015. And then the trolls and state-controlled media came after her.
“They said that I am a secret agent, a CIA operative, and that I am a pervert,” she says. “This is what they usually do. So I was ready for this.”
She says she ignored the trolls and hoped that her reporting spoke for itself.
She says that the charges against the 13 employees of the Internet Research Agency are her answer to those allegations.
Savchuk says she worked with several of the 13 troll factory people named in the Mueller indictment and was elated when she heard that workers and managers at the factory had been indicted.
“This was really a good sign,” she says. “We should continue to add more names to this list. I think that every single propagandist, even the little troll on Facebook, has to be punished, has to be named and exposed.”