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Elves vs. trolls Navalny’s team says it doesn’t have an anti-Kremlin social media army. Here’s who does.
On November 15, the Russian libertarian news outlet SVTV published a report alleging that after years of Russia’s liberal opposition mocking the Kremlin’s “troll factories,” Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) had turned around and created an online propaganda farm of its own. The FBK categorically denied the claim, but the story soon turned out to have a kernel of truth: a day later, Egor Kuroptev, an employee of the pro-democracy Free Russia Foundation, revealed in a lengthy interview with the outlet The Insider that his organization operates an army of dozens of anti-Kremlin, anti-war commenters known as the Elf Legion. Meduza explains what we know about these “elves,” who’s involved in the initiative, and where the claims of the FBK’s involvement may have come from.
The U.S.-based Free Russian Foundation (FRF) has responded to media reports that it operates a “troll farm,” confirming that it did launch a project it refers to as its “Elf Legion” following the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Our first response [to the start of the war] was to create the Elf Legion, which became an enormous machine, probably the largest counterpropaganda project there is, in the span of a few months,” said Egor Kuroptev, the director of the FRF’s Center for Strategic Communications, which oversees the Elf Legion.
According to Kuroptev, the goal of the project is to bring an end to the war and to “help” Russians “not be zombified by the Russian government and the Kremlin.”
[We want to ensure that] a person who watches TV can then get on social media and see a different point of view. First, he’ll think, “Alright, interesting, but it’s probably all lies from those filthy Yanks, the West, and [Ukrainian intelligence].” Then he’ll open Telegram and see the same idea put differently from another independent source. “Oh,” he’ll think, “multiple people are saying this same thing — now that’s more interesting. But it could still be [Ukraine].” But a new picture starts to develop, and it’s based on objective information.
Anton Mikhalchuk, one of the Elf Legion’s coordinators, said in an interview with the investigative outlet The Insider that the Russian social network VKontakte has proven to be “one of the best platforms” for spreading the project’s “narrative.” “We operate on the principle that neutral [Russians] can be converted into supporters, more radical ones can be pulled toward neutrality, and the completely radical ones — they’re not worth it, they’re beyond persuading,” he explained.
According to The Insider, the FRF has dozens of activists working on the project in multiple countries. Most of these “elves” have previously worked in the media or in Russia’s political opposition. Nina Alexa, another Elf Legion coordinator, said there are about 100 people on the team.
The Elf Legion is active on 900 pro-government social media pages, leaving an average of about 160,000 comments criticizing the Russian authorities each month. In the 20 months since its creation, the project’s activists have reportedly left more than 2.3 million comments. The Insider’s interview with Mikhalchuk does not specify where the project’s funding comes from.
The FRF’s involvement in financing an “elf factory” was first reported by the outlet SVTV News. That investigation’s main premise, however, has ostensibly proven false: it claimed that Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) runs a network of paid commenters who spread anti-Kremlin propaganda on the Internet. FBK has denied having any connection to the project.
Egor Kuroptev, the director of the FRF’s Strategic Communications Center, has also denied that the FBK is involved with the Elf Legion. “The FBK has not played and does not play any role in our work,” he wrote on social media.
Roman Dobrokhotov, the editor-in-chief of The Insider, said that his newsroom was approached about publishing the same “bogus story about the FBK” that appeared in SVTV. According to him, a person contacted the outlet claiming to have information about Navalny’s organization running a bot farm and later revealed “under pressure” from journalists that the information came from a team led by Leonid Nevzlin, a former co-owner of Yukos oil company. “After we raised a fuss about it, the Nevzlin-linked source began saying our team had misunderstood [him and that] the trolls initiated the whole story themselves. Nevzlin also denies having any connection to the story,” Dobrokhotov later wrote.
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Additionally, Russian opposition politician Maxim Katz said he was contacted about the dubious FBK scoop. He told Meduza that documents purporting to prove the story were sent to him and that he responded by sending Meduza’s contact information to the source. Meduza never received any documents.
According to Katz, he contacted Dobrokhotov after the journalist reported that The Insider had been sent the information about FBK, and the two determined that they had been contacted by the same person. “I haven’t managed to find a connection between the article about the bots and Nevzlin,” he noted.
A person with connections to the authors of the SVTV story told Meduza that disgruntled former employees of the “troll factory” wrote the text, though he doesn’t know how the text made its way to SVTV. He called the publication “very raw,” saying its authors were “grasping at straws.”
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