A St Petersburg-based organisation called Cyber Front Z is said to be paying locals around £500 a month to target senior politicians and media outlets on social media platforms and in comments sections.
Britain has accused a “sick Russian troll factory” of “annoying social media with Kremlin propaganda” after funding what it said was expert research for the organization.
Known as Cyber Front Z – through the military name used by Russian invading forces in Ukraine – it was first discovered in March by the St Petersburg-based fontanka news organization.
The State Department said its research found how the Kremlin “spreads lies on social media and in comments sections” although for security reasons it does not identify the researchers nor explain why they qualify as experts.
According to Fontanka, Cyber Front Z is advertising jobs on social media platform Telegram asking workers to post 200 comments a day on platforms including Instagram and YouTube for a salary of 45,000 rubles a month – around £500.
Information warfare waged from old weapons factory
Its headquarters are believed to be in rented space in the Arsenal Machine Factory in St Petersburg, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.
Fontanka’s undercover reporter worked at the organization’s headquarters for a month and discovered that professional fraudsters were given accounts to operate on their own computers for a number of purposes, including amplifying content in favor of the Russian story and attacking its critics.
The report also links the new operation to the Internet Research Agency — a private organization also based in St. Petersburg and run by Evgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally — accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that saw Donald Trump win. the presidency.
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The Foreign Office said the scammers had “ruthlessly targeted politicians and audiences across a number of countries including the United Kingdom, South Africa and India.”
Britain has pledged its support to Ukraine against the Russian invasion, although South Africa and India have both been criticized for not condemning the invasion.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and their shady troll farms to infiltrate our online space with their lies about Putin’s illegal war.”
“The UK government has warned its international partners and will continue to work closely with our allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information activities,” she added.
“Putin’s propaganda machine is deceiving the world.”
Culture Minister Nadine Dorries said: “These are covert attempts by Putin and his propaganda machine to mislead the world about the atrocities he has committed against the Ukrainian people.
“This evidence will help us identify and eliminate Russian misinformation more effectively and follow our decisive action to prevent anyone from doing business with Kremlin-controlled RT and Sputnik outlets.”
The name Cyber Front Z used by the Telegram channel is trying to recruit and publicly organize people to amplify pro-Putin content and attack critics of the Russian president.
The UK government said it would share its research with major social media platforms. Sources involved in fighting Russian fraudsters at two of those platforms told Sky News they were very aware of Cyber Front Z.
They dismissed the State Department’s suggestion that scammers using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to hide their physical locations were an “important tactical innovation” — Facebook said it had identified and suspended accounts using VPNs it linked to the Internet Research Agency in 2018.