Before the Kremlin unleashed its notorious Internet Research Agency (IRA) troll factory on the 2016 U.S. elections, it was busy testing its arsenal of disinformation tools on Russians. Moscow’s specific focus on online operations began after the 2011 protests against election fraud, which brought 100,000 Russians to the streets of Moscow. The protests coincided with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 following a brief stint as prime minister. Reports suggest that it was at this point that the Kremlin launched what eventually became the IRA. As a recent indictment released by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed, the IRA’s elite “American unit” employed more than 80 people. But this foreign unit was a small part of a much bigger Russian-language influence operation aimed, first and foremost, at the domestic Russian population.
In 2015, when an undercover Russian investigative reporter infiltrated the IRA, it employed approximately 400 individuals. Today, it has ballooned to almost 1,000 employees and has moved to a new office three times the size of its original space. This expansion was planned in preparation for the March presidential elections. In the lead-up to the vote, the 900 or so Russian trolls, state-owned media outlets, and government officials, together deployed a coordinated and structured disinformation campaign. It had several themes: to deny any allegations of election fraud, to scare or entice Russians into voting to bolster turnout, and to blame all signs of dissent or corruption on the West and the Russian opposition (which, the Kremlin believes, the West controls).
On March 15, a user of the popular messaging app Telegram claiming to be an employee of the Russian-language section of the IRA published what he claimed were instructions on how to respond to inevitable allegations of election fraud. The instructions, shared on Telegram, included links to articles already created by the IRA to be used as sources when posting comments. Among other things, the instructions directed the troll factory’s employees to disseminate on social media a rumor that the West has been planning to interfere in the Russian elections, a claim previously made by the Russian foreign ministry. On election day, the Russia-based media organization Interfax reported that the Central Elections Commission had prevented a cyberattack from 15 countries.* No evidence of the attack was provided.
While social-media trolls amplified disinformation narratives aimed at legitimizing the brazenly illegitimate election, Russian television—the real powerhouse of the state’s propaganda machine—pushed hard to get voters to the polls. In Crimea, where residents voted in Russia’s election for the first time since its military takeover of the peninsula in 2014, fear mongering and conspiracy theories dominated the airwaves. As the Washington Post reported, the newly outfitted government television channels warned viewers that high turnout was the only thing protecting the Russian people from annihilation by the West. Elsewhere in Russia, regional officials sought to lure residents to vote by staging festivals and raffles for iPhones. Local businesses sold discounted clothing near polling stations, and some localities gave away free food, creating a holiday-like atmosphere. Some Russians went to extreme lengths to maximize their chances of winning the freebies. All of Russia seemed to be plastered in pro-Putin billboards and banners, with some of them even appearing in polling stations (which is against Russian law).