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I was a teenage Russian troll

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In my early and mid-thirties I was part of a super-discrete, 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.

I was a teenage Russian troll


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, discrete, and had world class situational awareness.

The Good Old Days of Paid Trolling

I was part of a super-discrete, 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.

Security Culture

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 discrete 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 discretely, 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 plumenoms 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.

Russian Troll Army Web brigades Веб-бригады

Via Biznology


1. What is a "Russian troll" as mentioned in the narrative? A "Russian troll" refers to individuals who engage in online influence operations, typically on behalf of Russian interests, to manipulate public opinion, political discourse, or election outcomes in foreign countries. This narrative, however, uses the term more broadly to describe covert online marketing and social influence tactics that resemble those attributed to Russian operatives, regardless of the actor's nationality or specific agenda.

2. What was New Media Strategies (NMS), and what role did the author play there? New Media Strategies (NMS) was described as a company based in Arlington, Virginia, that specialized in covert online marketing operations. The author worked there in their early to mid-thirties, engaging in activities that involved infiltrating online communities under false identities to influence discussions and promote clients' interests, ranging from entertainment to consumer brands.

3. How did NMS conduct its operations? NMS operated by training employees to blend into online communities, often spending months building trust without revealing their true identities or intentions. These operations, termed "cyberstrikes," involved promoting clients' agendas or countering negative perceptions by subtly influencing conversations on forums, message boards, and other online platforms.

4. What ethical concerns are associated with these practices? The narrative hints at ethical concerns related to transparency, honesty, and manipulation in online spaces. Practices like astroturfing (creating a false sense of grassroots support) and sockpuppeting (using fake identities to deceive) can mislead the public and skew online discourse, raising questions about the integrity of information and the authenticity of community interactions.

5. Are such influence operations unique to Russian interests? No, the narrative suggests that while "Russian trolls" have gained notoriety, similar tactics are used by a wide range of actors, including private companies, political organizations, and even government agencies worldwide. The implication is that the digital landscape is a battleground for various forms of covert influence and information warfare, not limited to any single nation or entity.

6. What motivations drive organizations to engage in practices similar to those described in the narrative? Organizations, both private and governmental, may engage in these practices to promote products, influence public opinion, manage crises, shape political discourse, or counteract negative information online. The primary motivation is to control or sway the narrative in a way that benefits the organization or its clients.

7. How did the author and their colleagues manage to integrate into online communities so effectively? The success in integrating into online communities was attributed to rigorous training, deep understanding of the target communities, and continuous, active participation in discussions. By aligning with the interests, language, and concerns of the community, operatives could become trusted members, allowing them to influence discussions more effectively.

8. What are the potential consequences of these online influence operations for public discourse and trust? Such operations can lead to erosion of trust in online communities, misinformation, polarization, and manipulation of public discourse. They can undermine the authenticity of grassroots movements and skew public perception on various issues, leading to real-world implications on politics, consumer behavior, and social norms.

9. How do organizations like NMS avoid detection and maintain their covert presence online? Organizations employ various tactics to avoid detection, including the use of anonymizing technologies to mask IP addresses, careful cultivation of online personas to avoid suspicion, and strict operational security to prevent leaks or exposure of their activities.

10. Were there any legal or regulatory repercussions for the practices described in the narrative? The narrative suggests an evolving landscape of legal and ethical scrutiny around such practices. While specific repercussions aren't detailed, it implies that regulatory bodies and industry organizations have been pushing for greater transparency and accountability in online marketing and influence operations.

11. How do individuals rationalize their participation in these covert operations? Individuals involved in such operations may rationalize their participation as part of a broader marketing strategy, focusing on the creativity, strategic challenge, and results-driven aspects of the work. The competitive and secretive nature of the industry might also appeal to some, akin to participating in a form of modern espionage.

12. Can these tactics be countered or mitigated by online communities or platforms? Online communities and platforms can employ various strategies to counter these tactics, including improving detection algorithms, promoting digital literacy among users, enforcing stricter identity verification processes, and fostering a culture of transparency and skepticism towards unverified information.


  • Astroturfing: The practice of creating a false impression of grassroots support for a position or product, where in reality the support is manufactured by a sponsoring organization.
  • Sockpuppeting: The act of creating fake online identities to deceive, manipulate, or sway discussions or opinions in favor of a specific agenda or against an adversary.
  • Cyberstrike: A term used by the author to describe an instance of posting or engaging in online communities under a false identity as part of a broader strategy to influence or manipulate discourse.
  • Word of Mouth Marketing: A marketing strategy focusing on generating organic discussions and recommendations among consumers, but in this context, it is artificially created through covert operations.
  • IP Address Anonymizing Tool: Technology used to hide or change the IP address of a user to mask their true location or identity, facilitating covert online activities without being traced.
  • Russian Troll Army / Web Brigades (Веб-бригады): Groups of internet users, often state-sponsored, who engage in online influence operations to manipulate public opinion, political discussions, and election outcomes, primarily attributed to Russian efforts.
  • Noms de Guerre: A term borrowed from military jargon, meaning "war name," used here to describe the false identities adopted by individuals engaged in covert online activities.
  • Digital Native: A person born or brought up during the age of digital technology, thus familiar with computers, the Internet, and digital devices from an early age.
  • Influence Operations: Covert actions taken by organizations or governments to manipulate public perception, alter political outcomes, or influence societal norms without the target's knowledge.
  • Operational Security (OPSEC): Practices and procedures used to protect sensitive information from being disclosed to adversaries, ensuring the success and secrecy of operations.
  • Transparency in Marketing: The principle of openly and honestly disclosing information about one's marketing practices, affiliations, and intentions to consumers.
  • Misinformation: False or inaccurate information spread, often without malicious intent, leading to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of facts.
  • Digital Espionage: The use of digital tools and online platforms to conduct espionage activities, including surveillance, information gathering, and covert influence operations.
  • Regulatory Bodies: Organizations or governmental agencies responsible for overseeing and enforcing laws and regulations within specific industries to ensure fairness, transparency, and protection of public interests.
  • Identity Verification Processes: Procedures and technologies used by online platforms to verify the real identities of their users, aiming to prevent anonymity-based abuse such as sockpuppeting and astroturfing.
  • Digital Literacy: The ability to effectively find, identify, evaluate, and use information through digital platforms, including understanding the risks and implications of online interactions and misinformation.
Dec 19, 2017 07:25 PM