BBC scores first interview with one of 13 ‘Russian trolls’ indicted by Robert Mueller last year
It’s been more than a year since the U.S. Justice Department indicted 13 “Russian trolls” for interfering in America’s 2016 presidential election. Despite this publicity and the passage of time, the entrepreneurs, translators, analysts, and office managers whom Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation linked to the “Internet Research Agency” (IRA) have remained largely out of reach to journalists in Russia. With the publication of Mueller’s long-awaited report now imminent, one of the “trolls” has suddenly agreed to an interview with the BBC Russian Service. Meduza summarizes what he said.
A 31-year-old Web designer, Sergey Polozov is suspected of serving as the IT manager for the Internet Research Agency, in which capacity he allegedly rented servers in the United States to help mask the organization’s activities in America. That’s not how he tells it, though. Polozov says he did typical IT work for a loose collection of enterprises that he’s reluctant to describe as a single entity. He told the BBC that his contracted duties included the creation of websites and different automated processes, and he insists that the work was never in English and never had any apparent overarching aims, let alone geopolitical designs.
Given the nature of the technical assignments and communications he encountered on the job, Polozov says the IRA resembled a “pool of organizations,” not a unified, single structure. He says he visited multiple facilities during his IT work for these groups, including the IRA’s best known address at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg, but he says he encountered a business center for multiple enterprises, not a single operation.
Shut up, Robert, and thanks
Though he agreed to speak to the BBC over Skype, Polozov flatly rules out remotely testifying for the Mueller investigation, calling the special counsel a “fool” who rushes to accusations. He told the BBC that he would be proud to have played a role in Russia’s U.S. election meddling, if he believed it had actually happened. He says he no longer travels abroad, fearing arrest and extradition to the U.S., but he credits the indictment with forcing him to explore Russia instead, describing his new travel itinerary as a patriotic victory.
Throughout the interview, Polozov simultaneously denies and celebrates the IRA’s exploits in American cyberspace. He says he doesn’t believe the IRA ever existed as a coherent project with explicit goals, but he welcomes the idea of a “troll factory” dedicated to Russia’s geopolitical agenda, “broadcasting positivity, not negativity.” When the BBC asked Polozov about the IRA’s alleged creation of an online blacklist used to dox oppositionists and independent journalists (resulting in several violent attacks), he insisted that no one he ever worked with was involved in anything so negative or political.
More than he lets on
While maintaining the IRA’s scattered, virtually nonexistent structure, Polozov also acknowledges that he worked closely with Mikhail Burchik, whom U.S. officials have identified as a senior executive at the IRA who participated directly in its interference efforts. Polozov also verifies the authenticity of emails leaked in 2014 by the “Anonymous International” group, which mention multiple IRA-linked figures later indicted by the U.S. Justice Department. These records indicate that Polozov was helping the agency automate comments posted on LiveJournal by reversing similarity-detection algorithms created to recognize plagiarism. On Twitter, the IRA used a similar technology to amplify content posted by human staff (“trolls”) using tens of thousands of automated accounts (“bots”). Polozov also worked briefly on the IRA’s corporate website and forwarded several resumes posted on IT recruiting portals.
The BBC also casts doubt on Polozov’s claim that he’s just an honest independent contractor. According to trade registers, his IT company “Morkov” (Carrot) averages just 900,000 rubles ($13,735) in annual business, earning measly profits that maxed out at 78,000 rubles ($1,190) in 2017. The company’s website, moreover, is defunct, and its social-media account on VKontakte hasn’t been updated since 2015.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock