Vitaly Bespalov, a 23-year-old journalism school graduate, had no idea what to expect when he arrived at a nondescript four-story business center in St. Petersburg to interview for a job.
Everything about the building at Savushkina 55 seemed odd. Security was heavy and the windows were tinted. Guards dressed in camouflage demanded his passport and his home address before letting him into the building. And, as he negotiated his entry, Bespalov noticed a woman enter the lobby in a rage.
"She was yelling something about how she refused to be part of this," says Bespalov. “Everything about the place was strange.”
The year was 2014 and, as Bespalov was to learn, the building was the home of the Internet Research Agency - the company that would later be indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller on charges of conspiring to tamper in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
At that time, however, the agency was more concerned with the aftermath of another election - this time at home.
In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets and social media, alleging the Kremlin had carried out mass fraud in the country’s parliamentary elections. As Russians shared evidence of ballot stuffing and called others to join the protests, state media stayed silent. The difference in realities was glaring.
“The Kremlin decided they needed to make the online world and state television tell the same story,” says Bespalov, who described his experiences working at the notorious troll factory to VOA.
The aspiring journalist had moved from his native Siberia earlier to St. Petersburg on the promise of a job with a local news website. But the job fell through.
As a newcomer to St. Petersburg, Bespalov sent out resume after resume, looking for anything that involved editing or reporting.
The rejections piled up until one day the phone rang. He was invited for an interview. Even better: The job paid double the going rate for writing gigs.
“I had no idea who it was,” Bespalov says. “They just called and told me to show up tomorrow at this address - Savushkina 55. And I didn’t understand what the job was or what the company was, but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
Having negotiated his way through the heavy security, he was shown into an interview with a woman named Anna. He took a writing test and showed his writing samples - sympathetic takes on Russia’s opposition movement, LGBT rights, and the feminist art collective Pussy Riot.
“From those articles alone, my political views were obvious. I still don’t understand why they took me,” he says. “But Anna came back with a smile and said, ‘Well, we don’t cover the kind of stories you do, but you know how to write.’”
He got the job.
Inside the troll factory
On his first day, Bespalov was assigned to cover the war in eastern Ukraine. Sort of. He was told to rewrite articles from other websites for a handful of fake Ukrainian news sites. His task: to change the text in order to give articles the appearance of originality and a distinctly pro-Russian slant.
“We’d switch the word ‘annexation’ of Crimea for ‘reunification,’ or call the government in Kyiv ‘a fascist junta’ while writing favorably about the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine,” he says.
If there had been mere doubts before, Bespalov now knew for sure: He was in the epicenter of a propaganda machine.
With the realization came a dilemma, he says. “I could either leave right away, so as not to ruin my reputation as a journalist,” he says. “Or, I thought, I can stay and find out more and publish a big story about it somewhere.”
Bespalov went undercover. A mole among trolls.
He paints a gloomy picture of troll life inside Savushkina 55. Teams worked eight- to 12-hour shifts around the clock, seven days a week. Department heads monitored their work. Surveillance cameras were everywhere. Conversation among employees was discouraged.
In quick chats during cigarette breaks, Bespalov came to the conclusion that most trolls cared or thought little about what they were doing.
“I know people who’ve been there for three years and never thought once what it was all about. They were there for the money,” he says.
Bespalov sketches out a highly structured operation, noting a fake news division on one floor, and bloggers and social media commentators on another. Also within the structure - a graphics department - which seemingly built an endless number of picture memes called "demotivators" for everyone to use.
Bespalov concludes the point of all this was to complete what he calls a “circle of lies” - a feedback loop where troll postings reinforced Kremlin news on state media, pushing one central idea which he characterizes as “Make Russia Great Again.”
In contrast to 2011, the internet and state media had now merged into one.
“The work was directed at the Russian audience,” Bespalov says. “Even the fake Ukrainian sites weren’t there to change minds in Ukraine. The point was to remove Russians’ doubts about the war in Ukraine and about ourselves because we have a weak economy, because we have few political freedoms. And because Russia can’t launch a company like Apple or develop an innovative space program. But what we can do is create the appearance of a great country. Not make the country better, but create the impression we have.”
In the end, Bespalov spent three-and-a-half months at the Internet Research Agency. He says that once he felt he’d learned all he could, he quit. And he did publish his investigation - anonymously, out of fear for his safety. In fact, Bespalov was threatened, he says, after others at the IRA began suspecting he was the source of the article.
But eventually, the threats faded - in part, he suspects, because it turns out he wasn’t the only journalist working undercover at the IRA. Other local media outlets had come out with investigations.
“By this point, everybody knew about it,” he says.
And the troll factory would have remained old news if not for its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Bespalov says he has little light to shed on that operation, other than that the agency had started advertising for English-speaking positions around the time he left.
“We see that all the journalists who have written from inside the troll factory worked there back in 2014 or 2015,” he says. “That tells me that the system has gotten more cautious. Accidental types like me no longer can get work there.”
Nonetheless, Bespalov’s willingness to talk about his experiences have made him a go-to source for Western media covering the election scandal - and a punching bag for Russian state media.
A recent NBC News report featuring Bespalov prompted Russia’s state media to run a piece disparaging his claims. The program also pilfered his social media accounts - mocking his alternative lifestyle, tattoos and liberal political views.
Bespalov says his actions have been misrepresented on both sides of the Atlantic.
“In the U.S., they label me as ‘Vitaly Bespalov, former troll,’ not a journalist,” he says. “And from the Russian side, I’m a liar and traitor. A lot of my friends tell me, ‘Enough already. No more interviews. Have you lost your mind? Do you want to get killed? You’ve told your story and talking to more people about it won’t change anything.’”
Indeed, there were indications that the trolls recently geared up for another election - this time Russia’s 2018 presidential campaign.
An account on Telegram by a user named “Kremlebot,” who claims to work in the Internet Research Agency’s Russian division, wrote that employees were tasked with boosting voter turnout - a widely acknowledged goal of Kremlin spin doctors eager to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Vladimir Putin’s reelection bid. Requirements included sending selfies from polling stations to agency managers as well as playing up the competitiveness of the race.
Could “Kremlebot” be housed in Savushkina 55? Unlikely. Today, a giant “For Rent” sign hangs in the windows of Bespalov’s old office.
The Internet Research Agency had already moved on — and the trolls along with it.