Vasyl Bidun, a journalist for Hromadske’s partner Slidstvo.Info, went to work at a troll factory. Within a month and a half undercover he had time to work for different politicians — he supported some and mercilessly criticized the others. It all depended on the instructions of the curator and the wishes of the customer.
Although the term “bot” should refer to automated accounts, this story catches only the inauthentic accounts’ activities.
Troll farms are companies that massively create false social network users and write thousands of comments on their behalf. Ukrainian politicians have been repeatedly suspected of using such farms, but it has not yet been clear how it works, how much it costs, and how big the troll industry is.
It turned out that even those politicians who are considered "new faces", use dubious troll services. During the election campaign, troll farm workers massively commented in favor of Civic Position party leader Anatoliy Grytsenko and Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, Golos party leader and a rockstar.
Even a small troll farm operates with a seven-figure budget and pays in envelopes. This shady service market reaches millions of dollars a year.
The troll farm where Vasyl had worked was exposed and blocked by Facebook two days before the "I, Bot" investigation movie was presented.
Part 1. A bot undercover
To get hired at a troll farm, Vasyl Bidun removed his name from his articles and substantially edited his personal Facebook page. Then at a job search site he found a job of a copywriter at a PR agency in Ukraine’s capital.
Slidstvo.info journalist Vasyl Bidun (R) managed to get a job at one of Kyiv's troll farms. In this screenshot from the film, he speaks to a fellow troll farm worker.
Its office was located in a large three-room apartment in an ordinary residential building in Podil, a neighborhood in the center of Kyiv. The troll factory’s workers introduced themselves as employees of the two companies - Pragmatico or Doping.
“Our instrument is writing comments. For example, when something’s posted – we write 20 comments in support of it, so that a conversation starts to grow. So for posts, as you know, real people only engage when there’s already some activity,” the factory’s employee told Vasyl during the job talk. He added that the work is for different politicians.
The daily quota was to write 200-300 comments for different political forces. To support some and to criticize others, or to whack, as they called it inside the troll factory.
Vasyl was offered 9,000 hryvnias ($360) for such work. For instance, a cashier at McDonald's is paid the same. Vasyl was immediately warned that he would get an envelope wage. The journalist for Slidstvo.Info agreed to such conditions and worked undercover for the next one and a half months.
Part 2. Who the troll factory works for
The factory worked for various politicians. The biggest amount of comments - more than 20,000 - was made in favor of the leader of the Civic Position party Anatoliy Grytsenko and his team. They left praiseworthy opinions about the politician and attacked his main opponents. In particular, Vasyl and his colleagues were regularly instructed to criticize, and sometimes to make fun of, Grytsenko's closest competitor, Ihor Smeshko, the leader of the Strength and Honor party.
Inside the office in Kyiv's downtown Podil district where the troll factory that's investigated in "I, Bot" worked from. Photo: screenshot
To have all the comments with the proper focus, the trolls were sent "manuals" in a joint chat in the Telegram messenger. The tasks were formulated in the form of 5-6 key messages and indicated the sites where comments should be left. Usually, these were either personal pages of politicians or popular pages with political news.
Commenters were given up to a dozen assignments with talking points daily.
Trolls also ran online spreadsheets. There they wrote down how many comments each employee wrote in the interests of a particular politician and below what news. For example, one of these spreadsheets shows that in just two weeks, the troll factory wrote at least 24,000 comments in favor of Grytsenko.
“In the comments, we express three positions. First: Grytsenko is gaining ground, people understand that he is needed in the parliament. Second: Smeshko is dead in the water — that’s awesome. Third: Ratings are increasingly encouraging, especially that Grytsenko’s growing,” one of the factory’s curators explained the task to Vasyl and his counterparts.
The trolls also attacked Grytsenko’s occasional opponents, in particular, Vakarchuk. The two politicians argued on the evening talk show "Freedom of Speech", and the next day trolls were instructed to criticize the leader of the Golos party.
A screenshot of the tasks given in a Telegram chat run by the coordinators of the troll factory investigated in the film.
“Elephant and Pug. That’s ridiculous. Vakarchuk is no match for the experienced Grytsenko,” the curators' talking point read.
But two weeks before the election, the trolls were told no longer to comment in Grytsenko's interests — they were given a new assignment. On the morning of July 8, Vasyl was sent a "manual", according to which now they had to support Vakarchuk and his party Golos — the team they ruthlessly criticized a few days ago. So, the troll factory worked indiscriminately.
The trolls were told to emphasize the "young faces", family values and the patriotic focus of Golos. They had no task to criticize Vakarchuk's potential competitors.
Within a week the trolls wrote almost 6,000 comments in favor of Vakarchuk and his party.
The factory also worked to promote majoritarian candidates. In his first days in office, Vasyl was given the task of praising comedian Serhiy Sivokho, who, at the request of President Zelenskyy, ran in the Donetsk region from the Servant of the People (SOTP) party. As for Sivokho, there was one difference: all comments about him had to be left in Russian.
Serhiy Shakhov, another odious politician who became famous for fights on TV broadcasts, also ran in the Donbas on the SOTP list. The troll factory promoted him as well. Trolls were instructed to greet Shakhov on religious holidays in comments to his Facebook posts.
With the efforts of one of the Kyiv troll farms, Igor Kozhukhov found on Russian VK social network turned into Yuriy Kharchenko from western Ukraine. Photo: screenshot from "I, Bot"
None of these politicians, in whose interests the trolls worked, admitted to using the farm's services. Grytsenko called the journalists' questions "amateurish and abusive", and therefore refused to comment. And Vakarchuk said that he didn't even know what a troll farm was. He believes it could have been a provocation against the Golos party.
“This is the first time I hear that the Golos party may have something to do with trolls or troll farms. Secondly, I really don't know what it is and how it works. Thirdly, I officially declare to you that Golos has not sanctioned and will never sanction such things ever,” Vakarchuk said.
Part 3. How it works
Trolls have special tricks to seem like real people. Vasyl was instructed to create dialogues between different fake accounts. In these dialogues, it was necessary to emphasize the benefits of a particular politician and to make one decide to vote for him in elections.
Vasyl had seven fake accounts. All accounts used by the farm and details of them were added to the online spreadsheet.
The algorithm for creating fake pages was quite simple: the troll factory’s employees stole photos of real people from the social network "VKontakte", which is now banned in Ukraine. Then they uploaded these photos to a blank Facebook page with a fictitious first and last name.
But one troll account, Lyubomyr Kukuruza, quickly became a favorite among troll farm workers because of its funny name. Kukuruza means corn in English.
Just like that Igor Kozhukhov from Voronezh, Russia, turned into Yuriy Kharchenko, who allegedly lives in Lutsk and is actively interested in Ukrainian social and political life. And Estonian Marco Weide turned into Ihor Vernydub from Odesa and publicly campaigned for Ukrainian politicians.
The troll farm’s staff had a favorite character — Liubomyr Kukuruza (“Corn”). This fake account was created in June 2017 and had about a thousand friends. Kukuruza wrote dozens of comments on a daily basis about politicians in whose interest the factory worked.
Journalists for Slidstvo.Info discovered that in fact, the photos are of Dmytro Kostiuk, a public activist who recently became an MP from the Servant of the People. When reporters met him in parliament and showed the fake account page, he was surprised and promised to contact Facebook support to block the “twin”.
Trolls may have different responsibilities — from attacking the politician’s opponents and creating a negative image to drawing attention to a specific event or post. Franak Viačorka, a communications consultant who has worked in public and non-governmental agencies in the U.S. and Europe, explained that in any case, the main task of political trolls is to manipulate public opinion.
“And the worst thing today is that no organization, no mechanism is capable of distinguishing a troll, invented and programmed, from a real person. There is only one difference that a troll does not vote, but human does,” Viačorka believes.
Part 4. How much it costs
During the investigation, journalists resorted to another experiment. In order to understand how much the troll farm services cost, they, under the guise of assistants of then MP Iegor Soboliev, came with him to the factory’s main office. The legend was that the former deputy planned to launch a new political project, for which he needed support in social networks.
The "creators" of Lyubomyr Kukuruza used photographs of Dmytro Kostiuk, a Servant of the People MP. For Kostyuk, this was a surprise. Photo: screenshot from "I, Bot"
The main office was located in the center of Kyiv, also in an ordinary three-room apartment. Journalists were met by Valeriy Savchuk, a political technologist. Until recently, he appeared in the media as the director of the Pragmatico PR agency.
According to information Slidstvo.Info has, it was he who coordinated the work of the troll factory, where Vasyl Bidun worked undercover. Savchuk offered different options for the "promotion" of Soboliev's new political force. He also said how much the commenters' services cost.
“In the good times [...] the price of a comment reached up to two dollars for one. In this election, we did it for $5,000-7,000 dollars, that's for 10,000 comments,” Savchuk said. So the price for each comment during the election campaign was about $0.60 (about 15 hryvnias).
Savchuk also explained that trolls can be involved in cases when it is necessary to “disperse” information urgently or, on the contrary, to divert attention from scandal or unpleasant situation. You can “buy” additional trolls from other farms, but they will cost more.
Along with Savchuk at the meeting was his colleague Ihor Davydiuk. He explained that he was professionally engaged in "targeting", that is, exploring what kind of audience the troll farm should focus on. Ihor Davydiuk is the brother of Mykola Davydiuk, political consultant of the Golos party.
However, Mykola Davydiuk told journalists that he did not have a working relationship with his brother.
“He may have consulted one of the MPs, though hardly. But he was not in the central staff and was not involved. As far as I know, he was not involved,” he said.
In a few days, the journalists for Slidstvo.Info met Savchuk again, this time as investigative journalists. A man who had recently offered troll services was now in denial.
Political technologist Valeriy Savchuk speaks to undercover Slidstvo.info journalists who pretend to be ex-MP Iegor Soboliev's associates that want to solicit Savchuk's work. Photo: screenshot from "I, Bot"
“I don’t know what troll farm you are talking about. I know what a troll farm is because as a person who is constantly in the social network environment, I see what the trolls are. They are very easy to track, we see them. Whose trolls those are, who does this. I have the impression that everyone is doing this today,” Savchuk said.
Part 5. Who uses it
In one month of Vasyl working undercover, his group wrote about 40,000 comments in the interests of various politicians. Based on the prices Savchuk named, the trolls wrote comments for about 600,000 hryvnias ($24,000).
Experts from the influential analytic platform VoxUkraine, together with partners, conducted research on the number of trolls on the Facebook pages of the most popular Ukrainian politicians. They analyzed 12 million comments and found that every third was written by a troll.
Most fake comments were written on the pages of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy — about half of them were either praiseful or neutral. The situation is similar with former president Petro Poroshenko.
Trolls that write praiseworthy or generalizing comments can work for these politicians. However, using data analysis alone, it is impossible to discover who the customers are.
According to VoxUkraine estimates, the trolls wrote four million comments just in six weeks before the parliamentary elections during which VoxUkraine monitored the pages of Ukrainian top politicians. Based on the prices Savchuk named, the shadow market size reaches $2.4 million in a month and a half.
However, large political projects may have their own troll factories.
After the election, Vasyl stopped working at the troll farm. He earned around 9,000 hryvnias ($360) and donated all the money to the charity Foundation “Come Back Alive” for Ukrainian soldiers.
Golos party's consultant Mykola Davydiuk (R) and party's leader Sviatoslav Vakarchuk. Photo: Facebook / Nick Davydiuk
Two days before the release of the I, Bot movie, Facebook blocked several hundred accounts, Facebook pages, and groups that were used for misinformation. Facebook linked this group of accounts to Pragmatico, where Vasyl worked. According to Facebook, an identified and blocked group of accounts has spent about $1.6 million on social media advertising.