US media is reporting that Kremlin allies have deployed a new kind of troll farm called “Cyber Front Z” to wage an online information war against the West. Cyber Front Z consists of a public-facing Telegram channel where volunteers are directed to post disinformation under their own names and a private, professional troll army paid to post similar disinformation using fake identities. According to a VICE News report:
April 4, 2022 Considering Russia spent the last decade waging an online information war against the West, it came as a surprise to many that, days into the invasion of Ukraine, Russia was the one losing the information war. But they were just getting started, and weeks after the war began, Kremlin allies deployed a new kind of troll farm. “Attention fighters,” the administrator of the Cyber Front Z Telegram channel told their 65,000 followers on Thursday morning. The Ukrainian singer Jamala was, they said, worthy of an attack. She’d “arranged a photo shoot with the flag of Ukraine in Britain,” the message continued. Jamala was targeted because she had posted a series of photographs on her Instagram account of celebrities like pop star Ed Sheeran and singer Gregory Porter holding a Ukrainian flag. The administrator, who goes by the name Aleksander Kapitanov, told group members to turn on their VPNs—to circumvent the Kremlin’s ban on Instagram—and post comments ridiculing the singer. Group members were also instructed to reference a conspiracy theory the Kremlin has pushed in recent weeks alleging that the Ukrainian government perpetrated a genocide against Russian-speakers in the Donbas region. Headquartered in St. Petersburg, Cyber Front Z calls itself a “people’s movement” working to defend Russia. In its rapidly growing Telegram channel, launched on March 11, the group claims it is simply working to combat the flood of fake news and disinformation coming from Ukraine, the U.S., and Western Europe about the invasion—or “special operation,” as Kapitanov unfailingly refers to it.
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The VICE News report says that the Cyber Front Z Telegram channel, which currently has more than 87,000 followers, urges Russians to post comments, share pro-Kremlin content, and disparage anyone who criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin. The group has pushed many of the conspiracy theories and narratives that the Kremlin has supported throughout this war, including claims Ukraine was developing bioweapons in conjunction with the US, the Russian army was ridding Ukraine of Nazis, and the Ukrainian military was firing on its own citizens. According to an investigation by Russian independent media, over 100 Cyber Front Z trolls are offered a monthly salary of around $431.96 to post pro-Russian comments on content as directed by Cyber Front Z supervisors. This can create a flood of 20,000 pieces of supposedly organic pro-Kremlin content in just a few hours.
The Global Influence Operations Report (GIOR) reports on the use of Telegram by Russia have included:
- We reported last month that Telegram was emerging as one of the more covert influence vehicles Russia will be relying upon in light of the shutdown of its state media operations in the West.
- In October 2021, we reported that Russian state media outlets Sputnik and RT were expanding their social media presence to Telegram.
- In April 2021, we reported on an interview of an employee of a “post-Soviet troll farm.” The interviewee described how the trolls used Telegram and other social media platforms as part of the crackdown on dissent, presumably in Russia.