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Prigozhin's troll factories in Russia: What's next?

Ilya Koval
July 13, 2023

After a failed mutiny, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, has reportedly shut down his media group. But experts and observers warn this won't be the end of fake news and online trolls from Russia.

Yevgeny Prigozhin
Prigozhin's private 'online army' began operating internationally in 2010Image: Mikhail Metzel/TASS/IMAGO

After Yevgeny Prighozin's failed mutiny against Russia's Defense Ministry, the future of not only his Wagner Group is uncertain. In late June, publications belonging to Prighozin's Patriot Media group announced they were ceasing operations.

Does this spell out the end of the infamous "troll factory" in Russia, whose "internet mercenaries" have for years been praising the Kremlin and dogging members of the opposition in stories and comments?

The troll factory became widely known in 2013 when journalists uncovered the so-called Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, where staff were paid for social media posts. The agency was soon associated with Prighozin, but the business owner denied his involvement. Only in February 2023 did he admit to having founded the enterprise "to protect the Russian information space."

According to Yevgeny Zubarev, head of Patriot Media's largest resource, the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll factory dates as far back as 2009. "The first commentators worked against opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny," he said, adding that Prigozhin's private "online army" grew and began operating internationally in 2010.

The US Justice Department raised charges against the Russian firm for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

Tens of thousands of comments

At first, Prigozhin only had a few dozen workers, charged with writing about 100 comments each per day. By early 2023, the troll factory had grown to about 400 employees. Some of them wrote articles for Prigozhin's media, and at least a quarter wrote comments for social media.

The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group, has said it is technically possible to spread tens of thousands of posts per day. The center was founded by Kremlin critic and former owner of Yukos Oil, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who now lives in London. Its website is banned in Russia.

After documents were leaked from Prigozhin's circles, the Dossier Center was able to publish details about the troll factory. According to the documents, Prigozhin's internet empire has a disposable budget of some 100 million rubles (€1 million/$1,1 million) each month.

Who controls the media empire?

On June 24, as the Wagner Group advanced on Moscow, security forces searched the Lakhta business center in St. Petersburg where employees of Prigozhin's media house kept their offices. Some of their websites have not been updated since.

The Twitter accounts @RussiaActually and @WorldActually only posted two tweets after June 23, and have fallen completely silent since June 29. Previously, they were known for releasing about 10 to 12 tweets a day.

Meanwhile, the independent Russian website The Bell has reported that Prigozhin's online factory is looking for a new owner. According to The Bell, the National Media Group owned by Yuri Kovalchuk is set to assume control over Prigozhin's media. The media group is chaired by former gymnast Alina Kabaeva, rumored to be Putin's girlfriend. Billionaire Kovalchuk is considered a close friend of the president.

Alina Kabaeva wearing a white suit, clapping
Former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva is chairperson of the Board of Directors at the National Media Group Holding and said to be in Putin's innermost circleImage: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Sources later informed The Bell that Prigozhin himself had decided to shutter his media empire. It reported that he had instructed his editors to "eliminate everything" and remove "all traces of an online presence," including websites and any associated social networks.

At the same time, Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal agency for monitoring and controlling Russian media, had limited access to Prigozhin's media, including FAN.

Is this the end for Russia's online trolls?

But the European Union sees no reason to celebrate a victory over fake news and internet trolls. "It is too early to make any definitive judgments about the developments in the Russian disinformation ecosystem after the alleged shutting down of Prigozhin's disinformation activities," Peter Stano, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security, told DW.

Experts who have been observing trolls for a long time also doubt things are over. The Twitter user Bot Blocker, who operates with the handle antibot4navalny, pointed out that there were other social media commentators active outside of Prigozhin's media projects. "Their work has not let off much since the mutiny," the user, who wished to remain anonymous, told DW.

What is the EU doing to counter foreign disinformation?

"Pro-Kremlin trolls or bots are still active and are even creating new Twitter accounts," the user added. "In the past few days, we have not observed any significant interruption or impairment of their operations."

The creators of the project Chef's Trap, who track internet trolls on the Russian social networking service VKontakte, agreed. "A lot of media outlets are writing that the well-known troll factory closed on June 24, but according to our data their work continues," the project's website states.

Its name is a play on "Putin's Chef," Prigozhin's occasional nickname referring to the fortunes he amassed thanks to Putin's patronage of his catering company Concord.

Who leads Russia's trolls?

As to the leader of these trolls, observers remain unsure. The Chef's Trap project writes that since the conflict between Prigozhin and Russia's Defense Ministry began escalating in May, most trolls have been writing posts critical of Prigozhin.

Meanwhile, some 13,000 of an estimated 15,000 trolls in total have stopped supporting their mutinous boss. At Chef's Trap, it's believed Prigozhin has had his troll factory taken away from him.

But the user Bot Blocker believes "the trolls' behavior and rhetoric continue to follow the Kremlin's interests, the same as during our entire observation period. The changed 'attitude' toward Prigozhin probably indicates the changed reporting on him in the news, and not the handing over of the factory to some other nominal 'owner.'"

The EU doesn't expect Russian disinformation to dissipate, either.

"It is obvious that disinformation activities do not start and end with Prigozhin's enterprise only. The Kremlin will keep trying to use disinformation and information manipulation with all the different tactics and through various actors and means, as they have been doing for years," said Stano.

This article was originally published in German.