In 2019, Finnish journalist and author Jessikka Aro released a book entitled Putinin trollit. The book received wide acclaim and sold extremely well – which, of course, meant that she also became even more of a target for Putin’s little helpers.
That excellent book has now been translated into English; get your copy here. It’s a kind of real-life detective story, a nonfiction thriller. I highly recommend it, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Below is my interview with Ms. Aro. Thank you, Jessikka, for taking the time to talk to ForenSeek!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Jessikka Aro, a journalist and author from Finland.
How did you become a journalist?
My aunt is a journalist, too and she took me with her to interviews when I was a child. So it was a familiar choice. In addition, I’m super curious and interested in societal developments and international politics, and journalism is the perfect way to combine those interest. And of course, I love writing and teaching people new, fascinating matters!
How did you become interested in the Russian “troll factory”? Where did you first hear of it?
In 2014 I read an article written by super courageous Russian journalists, who already a year earlier had infiltrated to the factory and completely exposed it in their stories, published on Russian independent web sites. I had been following and covering Russia for years prior to that. In addition, that year I tried to report about Russia’s secretive warfare against Ukraine, but I had noticed it was challenging, as there was so much false material, blurring the view to the actual events. It was difficult to separate the facts from fiction and try to explain to the audience, who is doing what in Donbass. When I learned about the troll factory, I understood that it was a new layer in the Kremlin’s deception.
In your own words: what are “Putin’s trolls”? Who are they? How do they operate?
They are paid social media propaganda employees, who pretend as regular, opinionated citizens online. The build scial media accounts, blog posts, fake news sites and other digital content benefitting Putin’s policies and supporting the Kremlin. “Troll” is how the first generation Russian social media propagandists named themselves. The trolls who we saw with my colleague Mika Mäkeläinen and our Russian stringer, were girls and boys in their 20’s. They were ashamed, as they hid their heads with hoods and looked the other way when we filmed them!
You actually visited their headquarters in St Petersburg. Tell us about this trip!
Oh yes! It was winter 2015 and we wanted to film and expose the place thoroughly with Mika. We had a brilliant Russian journalist Irina working with us as a local expert, and she helped us to investigate the place inside and out. First we found the place’s job recruitment ads online: they wanted to recruit “copywriters”, “social media managers” and “graphic designers” and pretended to be a regular company named Internet Research Agency. They wanted the recruits to work in twelve-hour-shifts during nights and days, and they preferred the recruit would know English language! As we called to the recruiter and pretended we want a job there, we asked: what kind of material would they want us to produce, and the recruiter said herself: political news. So she gave it out: already back in 2015 there was an international influence campaign ongoing on social media.
In addition, we filmed the trolls and interviewed one of their bosses, as well as spoke with journalists who had previously exposed the place. I remember I had a horrible cold and was standing in wet snow in front of the factory feeling horrible – but it was worthwhile: when we came home, we made stories, also in English, and boom! The English article went around the world super quickly.
You yourself have been targeted by them for some time now, after your journalistic interest in them. Tell us about this harassment and how you have coped with it!
Indeed, I was made the target of Russian and Finnish language disgusting fake news, which attack me personally and denounce my work: according to the conspiracy theories spread by pro-Kremlin propagandists, their local helpers and people brainwashed by them, I’m a NATO “skank”, drug user, drug dealer, brain-damaged, conspiracy theorist, Russophobe and a liar. Oh, and a propaganda troll for the United States. Even the actual troll factory fake news site Ria Fan has spread filth about me.
The dangerous part is that when real people consume this psychologically manipulative material, some of them act on it and start for example threatening me or my family members. They feel it’s the truth and that they’re doing the right thing when attacking me. I needed to move away from Finland for a while some years ago, when the mudslinging was the most heated. I was really scared that someone would act on their threats.
Later a small part of the filth was taken through the Finnish justice system, and various people were convicted of crimes against me: stalking, which is a really serious crime, and aggravated libel. There are still people who hate my guts and don’t believe a word I’m saying. This is how information-psychological information warfare works, in a very simple model. Many other Western individuals have become targeted similarly or even worse by Russian state media campaigns and/or proxy sites.
What is the goal of this information warfare against the West? What does Putin want to accomplish with this?
By attacking the individual messenger, the Kremlin wants to silence them. In my case, the target was my work, and they wanted to shut that down to be able to continue their troll operations without any attention. When the operations are conducted in the shadows, unexposed, no-one has any resilience towards them. Putin and his propaganda machinery wants to spread his ideas and lies as the only truths, because ultimately, it benefits him and his close circle financially.
In addition, the Kremlin has many distinct political goals, such as breaking down the EU, get the West to drop its sanctions against Russia, to name just a few.
There are even some “foreign agents” in their service, people who spread Putin’s propaganda in their own countries. What motivates these people? Are they getting paid for it, or are they just, as the Soviets used to say, “useful idiots”?
Maybe they simply love serving foreign security services and playing an agent? Maybe some of them were blackmailed, maybe some need the money. Some, for example psychopaths, are perfect fit for the job.
How has this infowar campaign changed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022?
Its contents are still strikingly similar to what they’ve been ever since at least 2014: they claim “Ukrainian leadership is fascist and nazi”, “the US and Nato attack Ukraine”, etc, just like the trolls were lying already years ago. But there is a new level of aggression never seen before: the hate speech against Ukrainians on Putin-controlled medias in Russia is staggering, and happening on a daily basis. I have been thinking that it would probably be super difficult to psychologically resist the ongoing genocidal campaigning and dehumanizing, if you only consumed those channels.
In addition, nowadays Putin is openly operating as Russian propaganda troll, earlier he tried to hide it – at least sometimes.
How can regular people fight in this “Info War”? What can they do to counter the efforts of Putin’s trolls?
It’s important to admit that it exists. Unfortunately. It’s worthwhile to get to know the Russian information-psychological warfare’s basic features and methods, in order to understand and be able to recognize and counter it better. There are courses in this, you can ask a lesson from me, for example 🙂 As many of the trolls and fake news exploit social media platforms, one can also try and demand for stricter regulation for the social media companies. Our local politicians should care about our democracies more, and really try to hinder the Kremlin’s efforts to attack us in the information space.
You have written an excellent book on these topics, a kind of real-life thriller. Tell us about Putin’s Trolls!
Thank you! It’s a collection of real individuals’ stories, who became the targets of Kremlin-ordered security service and troll attacks, because they were doing an amazing job and the Kremlin took offense! The book has been a best-seller in many countries and recently a version came out in the US and Germany. The US reviews have been really good 🙂 Many readers tell me that the book was eye-opening, and that it should be taught at schools!
The book (and audiobook) is now available in English. Where can people find it?
Are you going to do a book tour in the English speaking world? Can people get their copies signed and hear you speak somewhere?
Yes I am, I will be for example in Toronto, Canada, soon! See you there!
What are you working on at the moment? Where can people keep up with your work?
Is there anything you would like to add that I forgot to ask about?
This is perfect, thank you for this opportunity 🙂
And, finally, my regular questions for all my interviewees:
Your top 3 albums?
Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
System of a Down: Toxicity.
Hole: Live Through This.
Your top 3 films?
Your top 3 books?
Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father.
Luke Harding: Mafia state.
Anna Politkovskaya: Putin’s Russia.