AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here are some stories you might have seen online last year - a chemical company in Louisiana on fire and spewing toxic fumes, an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta - neither was true. These hoaxes appear to be the work of a trolling company in Russia whose purpose is to spread false information on the Internet. That's what reporter Adrian Chen found when he investigated a group called the Internet Research Agency in the St. Petersburg. He was on assignment for The New York Times, and he's here to talk more about it. Adrian Chen, welcome to the program.
ADRIAN CHEN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So your story starts with the hoax that would give any business owner nightmares, not to mention city officials. September 11 last year, people started spreading a rumor online that there was a major chemical fire in Louisiana. Talk about how this spread.
CHEN: Well, the primary way was on Twitter. There were dozens of social media accounts pretending to be kind of normal people all across America. And they started sending out hundreds and hundreds of tweets about this supposed chemical explosion in St. Mary Parish. And they specifically targeted media outlets, reporters, politicians, spreading fake videos, fake screenshots of news websites and just generally trying to create this sense that there was this huge disaster happening.
CORNISH: Fake screenshots of news websites - so they had, like, doctored headlines.
CHEN: Yeah, they had a doctored CNN website. They also had a YouTube video where a man was supposedly watching ISIS claim responsibility for the attack. It took every media form imaginable pretty much.
CORNISH: So what made you start tracking these folks?
CHEN: Well, I had read a story in BuzzFeed about how this organization called the Internet Research Agency was spreading propaganda in the U.S. And I just started following some of the accounts and that kind of led me down this rabbit hole to more and more elaborate propaganda efforts.
CORNISH: So you start keeping track of the loop of people who are spreading this disinformation online and, essentially, you trace it back to Russia to this Internet Research Agency. Describe what it's like. I mean, it's an office space, right? What's the typical day for a troll worker?
CHEN: Yeah. It seems like a pretty normal office. And I talked to one woman who worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and she had a quota of posts that she was supposed to put up. She would get a list of opinions, basically, that she was supposed to post under the guise of these different personas that she ran. Like, dealing with the war in Ukraine, you know, criticizing the president of Ukraine, criticizing Barack Obama, praising Putin and the Russian government - things like.
CORNISH: What was the goal, as far as you can see? Was it about spreading anti-Western propaganda or about controlling the opposition within Russia?
CHEN: It's interesting because it seemed like there were two different things going on. One was what was being targeted for the Russian audience, trying to muddy the waters of the Internet, which, in Russia, had traditionally been this kind of free space where a lot of opposition activists organized and were able to talk freely. One activist described it as kind of polluting the atmosphere. But that was a little different than what was going on in the U.S. with these hoaxes where, you know, it was more aggressive and more akin to information warfare than propaganda.
CORNISH: I'm trying to understand kind of the goal of that. Like, what's the goal of perpetrating a hoax in the U.S.?
CHEN: Well, one thing that the Russian propaganda always focuses on are any kind of unrest or social problems or disasters in the United States to prove, you know, that the United States isn't all that, that we have our own problems and why are we lecturing Russia? Why are we sanctioning Russia? And I can only assume that maybe this is an attempt to take that strategy further, not just report on this, but actually manufacture this.
CORNISH: Adrian Chen, one effect of your story is it's made me really rethink those comments online, on Twitter, people who will probably complain about this story, made me wonder if they were real or if they were part of this kind of trolling effort. What's it done to you?
CHEN: It's definitely made me more paranoid about, you know, what's on Twitter, what's on Facebook. One thing that really struck me was how big of an impact, you know, a relatively small number of people who are working in a determined manner to shape the dialogue on the Internet can have.
CORNISH: Adrian Chen - his story on Russian trolling appears in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHEN: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.