Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov in Eurozine:
Disappointment with the mainstream media as the traditional intermediary between society and the authorities grew to striking levels. The concept of media denial was born: now readers wanted to judge events for themselves. Technology arose to aid them in this, and what seemed insane back in 2001, with people sitting in front of their television and computer screens and coming to far-fetched conclusions about the masterminds behind 9/11, became convenient in the late 2000s, with the rise of WikiLeaks and the concept of “data journalism” presented as an alternative to narrative journalism.
Russian bloggers, most of whom had never been journalists but who had some background in PR, became extremely popular. A blogger writing about politics, cars, cameras or anything else could get a million daily views.
And then came the world of social media: a platform to share experiences, data and stories where the credibility of the story was judged not on the reputation of the author but on numbers – of reposts and followers. This brave new world cried out to be exploited.
Were the Russians the first to exploit it? Certainly not.
In March 2011, The Guardian reported on a contract from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what was described as an “online persona management service”. This service would allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world. The CENTCOM contract stipulated that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate these false identities from their workstations “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries”. Back then these false online personas were called “sock puppets” – these days they are better known as trolls. The software's objective was to help US service personnel, working around the clock in one location, to respond to emerging online conversations with any number of coordinated messages, blog posts, chatroom posts and other interventions. As CENTCOM spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said at the time, “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable CENTCOM to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”
But Russia was the first country to turn this weapon into a new way of conducting public policy, first in Ukraine, then in Europe.