Considering Russia spent the last decade waging an online information war against the West, it came as a surprise to many that, days into the invasion of Ukraine, Russia was the one losing the information war.
But they were just getting started, and weeks after the war began, Kremlin allies deployed a new kind of troll farm.
“Attention fighters,” the administrator of the Cyber Front Z Telegram channel told their 65,000 followers on Thursday morning. The Ukrainian singer Jamala was, they said, worthy of an attack. She’d “arranged a photo shoot with the flag of Ukraine in Britain,” the message continued. Jamala was targeted because she had posted a series of photographs on her Instagram account of celebrities like pop star Ed Sheeran and singer Gregory Porter holding a Ukrainian flag.
The administrator, who goes by the name Aleksander Kapitanov, told group members to turn on their VPNs—to circumvent the Kremlin’s ban on Instagram—and post comments ridiculing the singer. Group members were also instructed to reference a conspiracy theory the Kremlin has pushed in recent weeks alleging that the Ukrainian government perpetrated a genocide against Russian-speakers in the Donbas region.
Headquartered in St. Petersburg, Cyber Front Z calls itself a “people’s movement” working to defend Russia. In its rapidly growing Telegram channel, launched on March 11, the group claims it is simply working to combat the flood of fake news and disinformation coming from Ukraine, the U.S., and Western Europe about the invasion—or “special operation,” as Kapitanov unfailingly refers to it.
A review of the channel by VICE News found that the Cyber Front Z army is used to boost pro-Kremlin videos, commentary, and articles on sites like YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. The group has pushed many of the baseless conspiracy theories and narratives that the Kremlin has supported throughout this war, including claims that Ukraine was developing bioweapons in conjunction with the U.S., that the Russian army was ridding Ukraine of Nazis, and that the Ukrainian military was firing on its own citizens.
The Telegram channel urges Russians to post comments, share pro-Kremlin content, and disparage anyone who criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kapitanov tells followers that posting such comments is a citizen’s patriotic duty to support their military’s war on Ukraine.
“We remind you that Ukrainian Nazis commit atrocities and will soon be punished for this,” Kapitanov wrote on Thursday in another post. “We paint everything in the colors of the Russian tricolor and distribute our symbols Z and V.”
This public army of trolls pushing disinformation across the internet is but one arm of Cyber Front Z’s operation. A report published last week by independent St. Petersburg–based media outlet Fontanka revealed that behind all its patriotic rhetoric and claims of a popular movement of concerned citizens, it’s just another Kremlin-linked troll farm, where people are paid to post disinformation in a targeted and coordinated manner.
“The Cyber Front Z channel openly calls on its ‘supporters’ to write comments under specific posts—mostly by Russian citizens and organizations that oppose the war—probably to create an impression that those comments are written by people who genuinely support Cyber Front and not by trolls who are paid by the state or one of the pro-Kremlin oligarchs,” Julia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News. “However, the Fontanka investigation makes it clear that this is a classic troll factory, with people being paid for the comments.”
Fontanka reporter Ksenia Klochkova went undercover as a paid troll at Cyber Front Z and was offered a monthly salary of around $431.96. She was given access to fake accounts and instructed what to write and where to post her comments.
Klochkova took photos of the Cyber Front Z offices that show bean bags strewn across the floors and walls decorated with flags featuring the letter “Z.” (The 26th letter of the English alphabet has been co-opted by nationalistic young Russians in recent weeks as a symbol of their support of the war and Putin, after Russian tanks emblazoned with the letter rolled into Ukraine last month.)
Klochkova reported that she was one of 100 people on her shift all doing the exact same thing: posting a minimum of 200 comments on content as directed by the Cyber Front Z supervisors, creating a flood of 20,000 pieces of supposedly organic pro-Kremlin content over a few hours.
Cyber Front Z, therefore, has two divisions: the public-facing Telegram channel where volunteers are directed to post disinformation under their own names across the internet, and a private professional troll army who are paid to post similar disinformation using fake identities. The end result is the same, with comments mimicking Kremlin narratives flooding Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube posts. All new recruits are asked to contact Kapitanov in order to join Cyber Front Z’s troll army.
The Fontanka investigation was sparked by an advertisement placed on the Telegram channel seeking people to “fight back in the information field.” The post is still pinned at the top of the channel, and says the group “welcomes everyone who is not indifferent and loves his Motherland.”
It also says the group is looking for “social commentators, spammers, content analysts, programmers, IT specialists, and designers.”
The group went public weeks into the war, at a time when Russia was facing losses on the battlefield and in the information war. But despite being launched relatively recently, it quickly amassed a huge and highly active following.
“Turn on your VPNs and fly into the ring,” Kapitanov directed the members on Wednesday afternoon.
The target in “the ring” was an Instagram post by Temirlan Raimkulov, a little-known Kazakh boxer, who had posted a picture of himself with the Ukrainian flag draped over his shoulders after a bout in the U.S. last weekend. He had also called Putin a “murderer,” the admin alleged, though there’s no evidence to support that claim.
“We are writing to Temirlan that his unsportsmanlike behavior stems from the fact that he is falling for Ukrainian propaganda,” the admin wrote in the Telegram channel. The message included a reference to the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian extremist movement notorious for its far-right ideology.
“You need to ask him where he was all these 8 years when Ukraine bombed the Donbas and why he was silent. Also, ask why Ukraine became the stronghold of the Nazi battalions. The ones that still terrorize the local population.”
A post on Tuesday urged members to support the work of Patrick Lancaster, a U.S. videographer who has defended Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and boosted disinformation about the scale of the supposed Nazi issue in Ukraine.
The channel even runs competitions to see who can write the most patriotic comment on social media and rewards the person who achieves the most likes, shares, or reactions with merch from the Russian military’s online store. First prize in a competition this week was a T-shirt emblazoned with the letter “Z”, the runner-up prize was a T-shirt saying “Army of Russia,” and third place won a Cyber Front-branded baseball cap.
Kapitanov frames their work as almost militant, encouraging members to see themselves as an extension of the Russian military. One meme posted in the channel this week reimagines a keyboard as a grenade, to be used against Russia’s enemies online.
Soon after the Fontanka report was published, a link to the piece was posted to the Cyber Front Z Telegram channel along with a picture of Klochkova and a claim that she was working with the U.S. to infiltrate the group.
After Klochkova’s article was published, the group also said, without evidence, that someone tried to hack the Cyber Front Z account.
“We are convinced that the attempt to gain access to the channel and the investigation are events from the same source, one of the manifestations of the information war against Russia,” Kapitanov said.
It is unclear who’s bankrolling the Cyber Front Z operation, and Kapitanov did not respond to multiple requests for comment by VICE News. The Kremlin also didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether it was aware or had endorsed the actions of the group.
However, there is evidence that the Kremlin has some involvement in the operation.
When Klochkova didn’t show up for her second day of work earlier this month, she received a phone call asking if she would continue working on the project. Klochkova found that the number belonged to Aleksey Nekrilov, whom Fontanka reported was an employee for Glavset LLC, Mixinfo, and Novinfo, all three of which the U.S. government has listed as pseudonyms of the infamous St. Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.
In recent weeks, a man referred to simply as “Alexey” has given several interviews to Russian state-controlled media where he framed his group as a “people’s movement” that’s powered by volunteers rather than paid trolls.
“The organization, which works on a voluntary basis, includes several thousand people throughout Russia,” a recent report in state-backed news agency RIA Novosti said, citing Alexey as the “curator” of the group.
In an interview with RT, Alexey appeared on camera and said Cyber Front Z was born out of a need to combat disinformation supposedly being spread by Ukrainians.
“Despite the fact that the activity of the patriotic audience in our social networks has greatly increased, its work was less organized than the activity on the part of the Ukrainians,” he said. “That is why the idea was born to consolidate this patriotic audience and call on it to help the country on the internet in order to dispel Ukrainian propaganda, explain to people the goals and objectives of the operation, talk about the history of Donbas, broadcast opinion information about various actions in support of the special operation, in order to show that most of Russian society is on the side of the president’s army.”
Alexey failed to mention in either interview that Cyber Front Z is reportedly employing paid trolls to post up to 200 comments per day in support of Russian disinformation. Instead, he says that those interested can “become an employee of our analytical headquarters, which is located in St. Petersburg.”
However, Klochkova confirmed to VICE News that Alexey was not the man she met in St. Petersburg, who called himself Aleksander Kapitanov, and that he was not one of the people she met during her time working at the group’s headquarters, suggesting that Kapitanov is not the only person running this operation.
This level of openness about its disinformation campaigns is a relatively new phenomenon, said Smirnova, the analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who pointed out that Russian trolls had started to talk more openly about their work even before the war began.
Smirnova says the concept of “implausible deniability”—deniability so paper-thin that it’s often nothing more than a purely formal denial of state involvement—is helpful in trying to understand why Cyber Front Z is so open about what it’s doing, while also portraying itself as nothing more than an organic patriotic movement.
“So now, it’s usual that Russian trolls deny only direct state involvement in their work but not the work itself,” Smirnova said.
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