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World

Activist wants to shut down Russian Internet 'troll factory'

A Russian Internet troll agency is moving to settle a court case quickly, but the worker who sued it for labor law violations is fighting a bigger battle. She wants the organization to be shut down.

Ludmilla Savchuk and her lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, say they've won the first round in a battle against a St. Petersburg-based organization employing Internet trolls, but the war is far from over.

On Friday the pair is due to meet the lawyer representing the "Internet Research" agency, which employs "trolls" who flood online chats and comment sections with pro-Kremlin propaganda, to thrash out the final details of a settlement.

As part of an undercover investigation to reveal how the so-called "troll factories" work, Savchuk was employed by the organization from January until March. She brought a case against the agency accusing them of labor law violations and on Tuesday a St. Petersburg court ordered the two sides to come to a peaceful agreement.

Pavlov, Savchuk's lawyer and a freedom of information activist, said the court's decision was a good result.

"Not just because they recognized she worked for them, and not just because they recognized that they didn't pay her properly … but because it gives Ludmilla a good base to continue her fight with the organization."

Savchuk said she had set up an organization called "Shirokiy Mir" (Broad World) which aims to "shut the factory of trolls completely." Part of her settlement - a few weeks' pay and 10,000 rubles (165 euros, $185 at the current rate) in "moral compensation" - will go towards her fighting fund.

"I might keep a bit for myself for a little feast," she told DW.

'Blatant propaganda'

Her motivation is based on her concern about the "blatant propaganda that is coming from everywhere, especially the St. Petersburg trolls." But her battle isn't without danger, Pavlov warned.

Ivan Pavlov and Ludmilla Savchuk outside the St. Petersburg court Wednesday

Lawyer Ivan Pavlov and Ludmilla Savchuk face the press outside a St. Petersburg court

"I think it's quite risky of course," he said. "I just know that only openness, transparency and sunlight will flush them out of the darkness and make them seem not as powerful as they do now in the cover of dark."

The agency failed to send a representative to the first hearing in early June but sent a lawyer, Yekaterina Nazarova, to the second one on Tuesday. Nazarova acknowledged the claims against the agency but said Savchuk was still on the company books and wondered why she hadn't shown up to work for months and had not presented a medical certificate for her absence. Savchuk alleges she wasn't paid for work she had done and that proper employment processes weren't followed.

Despite raising the question, they agreed to compensate Savchuk, a move that Pavlov describes as "choosing the lesser of two evils" in the hope that the story would go away quickly.

"But I don't think the story will finish so easily," Pavlov said. "This is just the first step in the process. Ludmilla wants to continue and we have some ideas on tactics for the future."

Part of those tactics may involve looking for breaches of Russian laws such as inciting hatred or discrimination.

"I think what these organizations do is freedom of information abuse," Pavlov said. "Of course, formally it's quite legal - it doesn't breach the law to pay people to make posts, unless the content of those posts isn't proper. It's hard to assess each post and its content but from what I hear about them it's pretty clear they've broken the law."

The pair will meet the agency's lawyer again later in the week at their office before appearing in court again on July 2 to finalize the settlement.

A laptop with social media Icons on the screen

Savchuk says students were employed to post comments on social media platforms

Inside the 'troll factory'

It's not known how many people the agency employs. Pavlov says he has heard estimates of between 200 and 400 people, and no one knows who exactly is paying the salaries. Savchuk said most of the employees were students and that they were divided into units that worked on certain sites or projects. She was posting on Live Journal, a popular Russian bloggers' site. Others worked on social media sites like Facebook and its Russian equivalents Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as Twitter and YouTube.

She said no one saw the bosses, that instructions were usually issued in written form on the Internet and that quotas had to be filled on a daily basis. Sometimes the trolls pretended to be journalists who posted on fake Ukrainian websites pretending to be opposition fighters.

The students were paid a "black" salary of around 50,000 rubles (820 euros, $920) a month, that is, cash-in-hand, and no tax was paid, she said.

Her main concern is that the hatred spread online will spill out into everyday life. It's a fear Pavlov shares.

"I just want to make my country better," he said. "I know that my country isn't thinking clearly at the moment, but I hope for a better future."

Olga Pavlova contributed reporting.

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