Britain has accused a “sick Russian troll factory” of “plaguing social media with Kremlin propaganda” after funding what it said was expert research into the organisation.
Known as Cyber Front Z – adopting the military insignia used by Russia‘s invading forces in Ukraine – it was first uncovered in March by the news organisation Fontanka based in St Petersburg.
The Foreign Office said its research found out how the Kremlin was “spreading lies on social media and in comment sections” although for their security the department did not identify the researchers nor explain why they were qualified as experts.
According to Fontanka, Cyber Front Z is advertising jobs on the social media platform Telegram that require workers to post 200 comments every day to platforms including Instagram and YouTube for salaries of 45,000 roubles a month – about £500.
Information warfare being waged from old arms factory
Its headquarters is said to be located in rented space in St Petersburg’s Arsenal Machine-building Factory, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.
Fontanka’s undercover reporter worked at the organisation’s premises for a month and found the professional trolls are supplied with accounts to operate using their own computers for a number of purposes, including amplifying content that is favourable to the Russian narrative and attacking people who criticise it.
The report also linked the new operation to the Internet Research Agency – a private organisation that was also based in St Petersburg and allegedly run by Evgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally – accused of interfering in the US presidential election in 2016 that saw Donald Trump win the presidency.
Read more: Why overstating disinformation campaigns helps hostile states
The Foreign Office says these trolls have been “ruthlessly targeting politicians and audiences across a number of countries including the UK, South Africa and India”.
Britain has committed itself to supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion, although South Africa and India have both been criticised for failing to condemn the invasion.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and its shady troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin’s illegal war.”
“The UK government has alerted international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations,” she added.
‘Putin’s propaganda machine is deceiving the world’
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “These are insidious attempts by Putin and his propaganda machine to deceive the world about the brutality he’s inflicting on the people of Ukraine.
“This evidence will help us to more effectively identify and remove Russian disinformation and follows our decisive action to block anyone from doing business with Kremlin-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik.”
The name Cyber Front Z is used by the Telegram channel that is attempting to overtly recruit and organise people to amplify pro-Putin content and to attack the Russian president’s critics.
Read more: Why is Russia using the letter ‘Z’ and what does it mean?
The British government says it will share its research with the major social media platforms. Sources involved in countering Russian trolls at two of those platforms told Sky News they were very aware of Cyber Front Z.
They dismissed the Foreign Office’s suggestion that the trolls using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to mask their real location was a “key tactical innovation” – Facebook said it had identified and suspended accounts using VPNs which it linked with the Internet Research Agency back in 2018.