It’s vast, secretive and completely nondescript. Now there are fears Russia’s mysterious “Internet Research Agency” could unleash a major disinformation campaign ahead of critical elections in the UK and France. The huge building at 55 Savushkina Street, St Petersburg has been described as a “troll factory” for hundreds of workers charged with pumping out Russian propaganda in comment threads and articles online. The Atlantic Council’s Information Defense fellow Ben Nimmo said Russia has already been accused of being behind “ham-fisted” attempts to influence the French election, but it’s unclear how it will respond to news of the snap election in the UK. “Russian operations are extremely pragmatic. My assessment is that they will be looking at the situation in the UK and thinking what’s going to be useful. It’s much more about ‘Is there a particular angle, constituency, party for us to support?’” he told news.com.au. “It’s entirely possible the Kremlin will think it’s not worth us backing any of these because there’s not anything in it. It’s possible there will be no disinformation at all.”
The notorious factory has been the subject of multiple whistleblower accounts and undercover investigations. But it’s just one cog in a vast network that includes bots and trolls charged with spreading propaganda and fake news on both sides of the debate.
“There is a sea of biased news in which these icebergs of fake news float. There are lots of different actors doing it,” Mr Nimmo said, adding that it affected both sides of the US election campaign.
In Russia’s case, he said the country is unique in that there is a large network of players who follow a “grand narrative”. “It’s a flexible network. It’s a very big machine and it’s got many parts,” he said.