All anyone is talking about these days is how armies of Russian trolls got До́нальд Джон Трамп (Donald John Trump) elected President of the United States. They did this through a unique witchcraft and voodoo that normal mortals cannot resist. How did Влади́мир Влади́мирович Пу́тин (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin) and his malintent Веб-бригады (web brigades) so easily, cheaply, effortlessly, quickly, and effectively puppet-master our innocent, vulnerable, and naïve online American yokel brains into becoming mindless hordes of racist, sexist, nationalist Nazi deplorables.
Russia isn’t the only country that’s leveraging highly-trained covert operatives with bomb-proof non-disclosure agreements to sneak around online in deep cover, pretending to be other people, genders, ages and emulating the interests, hungers, passions, fears, dreams, and goals of communities that could really benefit the agendas of their clients.
Okay, I wasn’t actually either a teenager or Russian when I was an OG Russian Troll and part of the Russian Troll Army.
In my early and mid-thirties I worked for New Media Strategies (NMS). I sat in an open-plan room occupying a former newsroom, spending all my days under cover, marketing on behalf of Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy), Buena Vista (now Disney), TomTom, Paramount Pictures, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Disney, Reebok, EA, RCA, and NBC. And that was just me, from 2002-2006. If you hired NMS you hired the best. Everyone was smart, capable, savvy, clever, discreet, and had world class situational awareness.
The Good Old Days of Paid Trolling
I was part of a super-discreet, amazingly-effective, super-covert, mercenary troll army that lived and worked out of two floors of Rosslyn Twin Tower Two in Arlington, Virginia, the United States called New Media Strategies. While I was employee 13, NMS topped out somewhere north of 120 employees, all of whom were exhaustively trained to promote and protect brands, companies, media networks, movies, shows, series, games, politicians, sports teams, political issues, and anything else that would plausibly be helped by a crack team of Millennials and Digital Natives who were trained with such rigor and held to such standards of discretion and secrecy that it actually felt like I was going through some sort of social media marketing bootcamp held by the FBI Training Academy in Quantico.
But no. But the training was expensive and lasted months. I am certain that the reason why NMS was born in Washington, DC, to Pete Snyder, was because DC is the only city where secret-keeping and to-the-deathbed discretion is in our DNA. Other folks from other cities are all about building their own personal brand on the back of their employer; DC’s not like that.
What we did was called word of mouth marketing. We fed exclusive info from our clients and back-channeled them into conversations that were already happening. We spent all day, every day, becoming essential parts of these online communities. I was routinely offered administrative and moderator rights. Rather, my noms de guerre were. Because message boards live and die by post count when it comes to prestige, it didn’t hurt that we were spending quality time–all day, every day, as long as our clients paid us and often between clients–on sometimes relatively small-but-influential homespun online forums.
There were times when we couldn’t get conversation started that we would all pile into the conversation that we needed happening for an upcoming report and we would chat with each other.
Each time we posted anonymously on a message board it was called a cyberstrike. 80% of all cyberstrikes were done in order to build trust in the community. Sometimes, online identities would not start cyberstriking on behalf of our clients for months, each one just becoming part of his or her community, sometimes communities. We would do this across message boards, forums, groups, newsgroups, and even the comment sections of relevant blogs.
I left during the Summer of 2006 to join Edelman’s élite digital public affairs team here in Washington, DC, so I never got to see what happened in a Facebook and then Twitter world but I’m pretty sure we didn’t invest our time at all on Friendster or MySpace. While I was always a proponent of transparently pitching bloggers and message board and forum owners on behalf of our very cool clients, that was never the company core, though we did create many a blog and website posing as superfans.
At first, we were just super-careful. Getting burnt was not an option. Later, we implemented a hardware-based IP address anonymizing tool such as an Anonymizer appliance that lives in our server rooms. I think we also tried out proxy servers to allow us to cyberstrike from all corners of the world. No matter how much we ended up leaning on spy-tech gear, it was more about faultlessly maintaining cover without making a mistake that would not only burn you but burn 3-24-months of cultivation and would, then, probably burn other false names, other resources, and then probably burn back to our clients and even ourselves.
If there was even a hint of “Witch!” or any remote hint of getting called out astroturfing or not clearly and transparently representing who you are, your true name, your true identity, and your paid-by connection or a brand, political campaign, upcoming movie, or whatever, our entire newsroom full of trolls would be commanded to stop by the our Chief Operation Office: “logout of everything you’re on right now and await further instructions!”
The entire room–actually both floors–would go silent. Brand Managers would meet with the C-Suite, and a very cautious step-by-step plan would be quickly but completely developed before anyone was allowed anywhere near the site of the possible crime, including all other false-name cyberstriking characters that had, at any point, come in contact. And since online communities are very incestuous, this toxicity would assume to have spilled over to other boards, groups, and forums with shared topics and interests.
I don’t remember us making up memes but we did have several amazing graphic designers so that’s plausible. I do know we would also plant counter-news, counter-ads, and stoke people up whenever their noisiness could either push out client’s agenda forward to hold our client’s adversary’s agenda back.
And, none of what we did–I did–at NMS required any special equipment. Anyone with an internet connection can do it. And anyone who can not only be discreet but bring 5, 50, 500 of their closest allies on board can do it. In fact, very few very influential platforms demand true names. Most message boards, forums, groups–especially reddit and Wikipedia–do not demand you are who you say you are. And they’re especially rightfully paranoid about it on those two platforms.
You Too, Could be a Russian Troll
If the only barrier to entry into the world of becoming a Russian Troll Army is a connection to the internet, an Internet-enabled device like a computer or smart phone, some smarts, some discretion, some fearlessness, possibly a shareable spreadsheet to track all your fake users and, where they’ve been and what they’ve done, some sort of proxy tool such as Tor (optional and maybe more trouble than it’s worth) and balls, when why would Russia be especially good at this? Sure, they can speak some English, but even native English speakers catch crap for making grammar mistakes.
I am sure if Pete Snyder came up with this brilliant plan back in 1999 there must be an infinite number of little newsrooms around the USA, Canada, and the world. Some persistent and possibly part of the State Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, or the CIA, and some ad hoc based on a passing need or an upcoming election. Though I must hand it to Peter Snyder for coming up with marketing strategies and tactics that compelled me to ditch a decade of high-level technology for a junior gig at NMS, it’s not rocket science and I am sure versions of it are being played out discreetly, elegantly, and effectively, right now–no matter how publicly against it WOMMA professes to be.
I loved working for New Media Strategies (NMS) from 2002-2006, from 32-36. Compared to my colleagues who were 22-26, I was long in the tooth and not remotely a teenage troll. What I was was part of a very smart, elite, highly-trained, Internet-native team of online covert operatives who spent long hours of our micromanaged time anonymously sneaking around message boards and online forums under the protection of false names, noms de plume, noms de guerre. I freaking loved it!
But I don’t do it any more. I haven’t at all since I left NMS in 2006 and I don’t even know if NMS continued doing it themselves since there was a lot of heat from the FTC and organizations like WOMMA, PRSA, and the lot to not astroturf or misrepresent oneself. To me, things like that just mean agencies like NMS just go deeper, darker, and maybe offshore.
Spying is Here for Good
There’s too much money to be made in spycraft, both in online analysis and also in online “field operations” to ever actually stop, take off the mask, reveal the true nature of one’s agenda and intent. Keep calm and carry on isn’t effective in the game of hearts and minds war. And since I am not even remotely in that world anymore–all my company does is pitch online influencers with brand information and products and expect that a good number of them will come back with interest and be willing to share and review–I don’t know what the current landscape is. I only know it does work as well as everyone is saying with the Russian troll armies.
My point with this post is to suggest that the Russians aren’t remotely alone. I might even add that 80%+ of what is being blamed on these Russian troll armies could very well be anyone: private PR and Public Affairs Agencies, Communications Companies, government contractors, the military, the intelligence community, the State Department, the RNC, the DNC, PACs, SuperPACs, NGO, foundations, clubs, or even the pure unrestrained hubris of millionaires and billionaires (Soros, Koch, Murdoch, oh my!).
So, I say again, 12+ colleagues and I were/are teenage Russian troll OGs–original gangsters! We might have been the first but we’re certainly not the last.