Internet Research Agency, an entire company housed on multiple floors of a corporate building in St. Petersburg, concocting propaganda at the Kremlin’s bidding. But a targeted troll campaign today can come much cheaper—as little as $250, says Andrew Gully, a research manager at Alphabet subsidiary Jigsaw. He knows because that’s the price Jigsaw paid for one last year.
As part of research into state-sponsored disinformation that it undertook in the spring of 2018, Jigsaw set out to test just how easily and cheaply social media disinformation campaigns, or “influence operations,” could be bought in the shadier corners of the Russian-speaking web. In March 2018, after negotiating with several underground disinformation vendors, Jigsaw analysts went so far as to hire one to carry out an actual disinformation operation, assigning the paid troll service to attack a political activism website Jigsaw had itself created as a target.
In doing so, Jigsaw demonstrated just how low the barrier to entry for organized, online disinformation has become. It’s easily within the reach of not just governments but private individuals. Critics, though, say that the company took its trolling research a step too far, and further polluted social media’s political discourse in the process.
“Let’s say I want to wage a disinformation campaign to attack a political opponent or a company, but I don’t have the infrastructure to create my own Internet Research Agency,” Gully told WIRED in an interview, speaking publicly about Jigsaw’s year-old disinformation experiment for the first time. “We wanted to see if we could engage with someone who was willing to provide this kind of assistance to a political actor … to buy services that directly discredit their political opponent for very low cost and with no tooling or resources required. For us, it’s a pretty clear demonstration these capabilities exist, and there are actors comfortable doing this on the internet.”
Trolls Behind the Counter
In early 2018, Jigsaw hired a security firm to sniff around Russian-language black-market and gray-market web forums for disinformation-for-hire services. (That company asked WIRED not to name it, to preserve its ability to work on underground forums.) Browsing sites like Exploit, Club2Crd, WWH, and Zloy, the security firm’s researchers say they didn’t find explicit offers of trolling or disinformation campaigns for sale, but plenty of related schemes like fake followers, paid retweets, and black hat search engine optimization. The team guessed, though, that more awaited beneath the surface.
“If we look at this as window shopping, we hypothesized that if someone was selling fake likes in the window, there’s probably something else behind the counter they might be willing to do,” says Gully. When researchers for the security firm Jigsaw had hired started chatting discreetly with those vendors, they found that a few did in fact offer mass-scale social media posting on political subjects as an unlisted service.
“That … is an extremely controversial and risky thing to do.”
Thomas Rid, Johns Hopkins University
Before it bought one of those paid trolling campaigns, Jigsaw realized that it first needed a target. So together with its hired security firm, Jigsaw created a website—seeded with blog posts and comments they’d written to make it appear mor
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