I went undercover at a Polish troll farm

Katarzyna Pruszkiewicz (Fundacja Reporterów) 2019-11-04
Katarzyna Pruszkiewicz (Fundacja Reporterów) 2019-11-04

January 2019. Agents of Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) entered the headquarters of two companies in Poland’s south-western city of Wrocław. The investigation failed to attract any significant media coverage; only two brief media reports were published about the intervention.

One of the companies probed by anti-corruption agents was Cat@Net, an entity unknown to the general public, although it had been on the market for a couple of years. The company’s website has been suggesting that Cat@Net specialises in online public relations (e-PR). “We operate inconspicuously and with the necessary caution to deal with delicate matters,” “[We] aim […] to build a strong positive image of companies and products,” “[…] There is no misleading the public, we present facts only” – this is how Cat@Net has described its activity on the website (after Sunday publication of the Polish version of this story in Newsweek Poland, the website has been changed – VSquare).

The inspections as such don’t generate a lot interest among the general public – after all, the CBA conducts several similar probes a day. Cat@Net itself is nothing out of the ordinary –there are dozens of e-PR businesses in Poland. Yet the two short press releases contain a valuable clue – they both report that the probe is linked to the detention of Bartłomiej Misiewicz and his alleged illegal conduct within the Polish Armament Group (PGZ).

1. The Sparkle

Bartłomiej Misiewicz, 29, is an activist of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party who has become a symbol of how people might become corrupted by power. He is a longtime (and close) associate of Poland’s former minister of defence, his then-spokesperson and head of his political cabinet. But he is also the face of a conservative revolution called “Good Change”, brought about by PiS after it emerged as the country’s leading political force in the 2015 election. Misiewicz is a typical PiS activist – while he was holding the positions, he had no university degree, no military background and his only work experience was a short stint at a local chemist’s. Inexplicably, military staff resented having to host his visits – Misiewicz was thought to wield considerable powers, and even generals chose to greet him with a salute. His name soon became a symbol of impudent, arrogant behaviour and brazen assurance.

Misiewicz, with Macierewicz’s support (his protector and Poland’s minister of defence) was appointed member of supervisory boards of several state-controlled companies, including PGZ, one of Europe’s biggest defence groups. It comprises of over 50 entities, plants, service facilities and research centres, employs over 18,000 people and generates over PLN 5.5 billion (USD 1,43 billion) in annual revenue.

In January 2019, Misiewicz is arrested over corruption allegations in PGZ, among others. When CBA agents entered Cat@Net, an obscure Wrocław-based company as a follow-up after his arrest, it set off alarm bells at the Reporters Foundation (Fundacja Reporterów), an independent Polish journalistic centre. What is the reason for the probe? Soon we hear more about Cat@Net. As our journalists also trace disinformation as part of Investigate Europe project, we contact our sources. One of them says, “The Wrocław-based Cat@Net is a classic troll farm. They have built a model in which the state supports dissemination of fake news. Because the company employs disabled people, it gets a subsidy from the National Disabled Persons Rehabilitation Fund. The employees sit in front of computers and send messages and moderate conversations using hundreds of fictitious accounts. They work for Poland’s public television.”

Poland’s public television channel TVP has become a government propaganda tool for the ruling party (PiS) and no longer plays the role public media play in other countries. So as the CBA agents rummage through the Cat@Net headquarters, we decide it is high time to connect the dots.

2. The Recruitment

March 2019. We try to learn as much as possible about Cat@Net. We look for online clues of the troll farm, but apart from some information on the company’s official website, the search brings little of value. We already know that the company has been in business for over two years and employs the disabled, which lets it claim tax relief. The company uses a teleworking model to implement e-PR strategies. What it means is that the people they hire work from home.

Quite unexpectedly, we come across a job posting that says Cat@Net is looking for a “telecommuter,” preferably a university student or graduate from a faculty of journalism or mass media. The person would be responsible for “Building a positive image of our customers in social media and the Internet.” The posting goes on to suggests that the customers include “large and small companies … as well as other entities, including public administration institutions and private individuals.” The job description indicates that the person would be expected to “Effectively reach and influence the audience so that the actions expand the community of people who support the disseminated content.

It seems a perfect job for me because you can’t find any information about me on the website of the Reporters’ Foundation, Investigate Europe or link me to the world of journalism, for that matter. Apart from a narrow circle of friends, no one is aware I know any investigative journalists. Besides, as a student journalist with some experience in e-PR, I’m a perfect cut for the job.

I reply to the job posting and wait. There are three email addresses on the company’s website – you can write to the COO, online marketing manager, while one address can be used to send PR alerts. I send my CV to all of them, but it quickly turns out that my application has reached only one recipient. The remaining two addresses are probably fake.

Three weeks later I get a phone call from an unknown number. A female voice invites me for an interview. Some progress at last! We are to meet somewhere in downtown Warsaw.

3. The Discretion

We meet in a cafe at one of Warsaw’s shopping centres. I get here on time to be greeted by two women from Cat@Net. It was the younger one, Alicja, who replied to my email. We exchange smiles and shake hands. They ask me about current political developments and ask questions to learn if I know what kind of news the media follow. They also want to know how I would react in emergencies and what I did in my previous job.

I answer all of their questions. They exchange looks and then Alicja asks if I would be able to recommend paving slabs and do so in such a way that others would think I’m an expert. I quickly says I could easily do it. They start laughing – I have managed to convince them.

We go over the details except for one – they can’t tell me for whom they work. They cannot reveal their actual employer, at least not for now. I nod my head to confirm I understand the need for discretion, which is part of their policy after all. Two days later Alicja calls me to congratulate and says she’s offering me a three-month trial period. I learn that if I’m good enough, I may be promoted. I’m also told that the COO wants to talk to me and indeed, a couple of minutes later Grzegorz Demel calls me to congratulate and welcome me aboard.

April. I start work. First, I have to sign a contract. An ordinary-looking house in the suburbs does not look like an office – an inconspicuous entrance, no doorbell and nobody answers the door when I knock. I’m about to leave when a wide neck guy emerges from behind the door. “You want to see someone?” he snarls. “What company are you looking for?” I tell him, but I still have to wait outside.

Alicja arrives late, holding a bunch of keys. The Cat@Net office is situated on the first floor and guarded by the same “friendly” guy I have already met. She explains it is bit messy here because the company has just moved in. Offers something to drink, and we sign the contract. It turns out I have two assignments scheduled for April. The first one is to create a Twitter account to share “social and political” content. I’m supposed to create a profile and identity, make it credible and convincing; I also have to write on whatever topic I want, provided it is something current, to ensure prompt reactions. My goal is to get 500 followers. I need to name my account; it has to be something simple, yet catchy. I suggest “Żoliborz Lass” [Żoliborz is a district in Warsaw]. Alicja likes the idea but suggests “First Lady of Żoliborz”, an apparent reference to the PiS chairman who lives in that part of the city but in the end, we settle for my nick. I’m also told to start a Facebook group that would share news on cultural events – museum and art exhibitions as well as new films. One with a touch of class. My goal is to get 500 followers within a month.

That’s all. Before I leave, Alicja shows me how Twitter works.

 4. The Żoliborz Lass

I set up a Twitter account and become a right-wing, patriotic Żoliborz Lass with a Polish flag in my profile bio. I describe myself as a traditionalist, sleepy-head and a chatterbox. I reveal that I am still a student. Alicja told me to make my account as credible as possible; I know I’m a real person; now I have to convince other Twitter users.

I remember her advice – apart from writing about social and political issues, I have to offer some insight into my life as an imaginary person. Since I’m a student, I post my photo at  university. After I’ve cooked something, I brag about it online. New nail polish? I add a pic. Those details help make my account authentic.

At first, I am a complete newbie. I don’t know how to post comments to complete the tasks given to me by Cat@Net. I don’t yet enjoy the trust of my managers to get guidance from them. Although I’m still kind of driving around blindly, I’m also gathering my followers, and I write my first posts. I get two tips – my posts need to be controversial and be regularly published.

Looking for a suitable method, I check the most popular hashtags and read other posts. Then I start writing, add hashtags and browse comments, looking for right-wing opinions. I follow their authors and they respond by following my account. Sometimes I share links, even if I have not read the article. I don’t have to – it’s enough to take one side; then the other side clicks on the link, and they start bickering and arguing. When I comment about someone’s posts and add a heart emoji, soon they visit my account, and I get more and more clicks and views. Alicja was fixed on making my posts “scream out” my avatar’s opinions.

I get lucky. April is the time of nationwide teachers’ strike; they demand higher pay. The ruling party and their public radio and TV propaganda portray teachers as parasites, losers and sly dogs. The teachers’ protest becomes a hot issue widely discussed on Twitter in Poland, which leads to some heated debates. You can either support them or be against them.

My fictitious “Żoliborz Lass” chooses the #notsupportingteachersstrike hashtag. I write that teachers are holding students hostage; they are selfish and that their demands are unjustified. I talk about female teachers who wear expensive scarfs and look as if their work was something evil. I thank the authorities for their efforts to mitigate the conflict. I keep writing, I share and post new comments. Soon, my “Żoliborz Lass” account is followed by more and more people – the more, the better. I have gained their trust.

 5. The Junior Troll

As teachers’ protests continue in Poland, I publish hate posts about the opposition. “Żoliborz Lass” thinks they are a bunch of thieves and adds the #greatfraud hashtag. I also follow the ruling party’s political rhetoric. I lash out at the LGBT movement and write about the desecration of the Virgin Mary of Częstochowa. Someone created a poster of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus with rainbow halos, and news of that incident quickly spread because of media coverage. I turn up the heat under the already heated disputes that usually make the right-wing Twitter users even more flared-up. I don’t make up any fake content. I only click, that’s all.

In May and June, I taunt Maja Ostaszewska, a Polish actress committed to liberal democracy. For me, the Żoliborz Lass, Poland is the heart of Europe and Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki is an able leader. I also say that I nodded off while trying to watch Tell No One, a documentary about child sex abuse in Poland’s Roman Catholic Church. Two men kissing on Eurovision? That’s outrageous! How can you expose children to such content? During the European Parliament elections, I voted for the right people, and when PiS won – congratulations! And people who vote for the opposition are the enemy of the country as they support the German industry.

Pride parade? – more like #PervertsParade!, I write.

Did somebody write about national TVP being manipulative? This news must have been disseminated by TVN, a private television network that the ruling Law and Justice party clearly detest.

I post pictures of flowers, my cat, my favourite chocolate. After all, my life is not politics only.

This is how my first three months look like.

6. The Troll Farm

Although I’m already comfortable on Twitter, Facebook proves more of a challenge. I’m meeting Alicja for the second time at Cat@Net offices. I get access to a new, anonymous Twitter account that someone had created before me. The account shares info on cultural events. I’m told to recommend things that I like and to write about events that are worth attending, such as museum and art exhibitions as well as performances. I’m expected to “like” Theatre plays on TVP, the Polish propaganda public television channel controlled by the government.

Alicja shares with me some tips on how to start an account. She uses an example of TVPolakow_1 – an account that has proven effective for Cat@Net. She runs it off her phone and explains how to create online surveys or increase traffic. The tested methods include using a lot of hashtags, plus a Friday run of #FF – “follow for follow”.

She emails me the password and login and adds a short introduction. It suddenly becomes clear what I’m expected to do: “It would be great if you post positive comments about the government’s subsidy for TVP and the TV licence fee as part of the high culture narrative. The media with a mission should receive public funding; otherwise they would disappear from the market in favour of such shoddy productions as Hidden Truth [based on German TV-series Family Stories], Big Brother or School [a Polish pseudo-documentary series about students in Poland]. The account is to present the point of view of an intellectual who lives in a large city and has access to culture but avoids politics. It would be helpful if you followed TVP Kultura, TVP History or theatre plays”.

I take over the account and follow the briefing I received.

June. I receive an invitation to join the internal Cat@Net messenger. I have become a trusted troll and the member of the Lame Rebellion – that’s what the private Cat@Net chat is called on Slack messenger. The messenger will provide additional guidance and fill in the gaps left by Alicja. With my new Slack account, I finally get inside the troll farm.

An analysis of Slack reveals that Cat@Net has 179 troll accounts – 70 Facebook accounts, 94 Twitter accounts, 11 Instagram ones and three on YouTube. Fourteen people run all 179 accounts.

Appearances may be deceptive; this is a huge army, as many accounts are followed by several thousand people. As a result, a single post gets seen by tens of thousands of people. “Extremely motivated and committed” – this is the image of Cat@Net employees with disabilities, that emanates from the company advert as they display “consistent efforts to update social media and work for customers.” Cat@Net employees use Slack and Skype to stay in touch, which have become their virtual headquarters. That is where they are briefed about what they have to do and where they report their daily activities.

7. The Network

A day at the troll farm begins with a “good morning” shared with other trolls and a cup of coffee. Trolls brag about their most popular posts and how many users they have reached. They brag about which politicians responded to posts published on their fake account. After a politician replies to such posts, Slack quickly overflows with words expressing praise.

Every day we take shifts and at set intervals monitor the Internet looking if something has come up in the topics we have been asked to follow. We authenticate our avatars’ accounts with daily entries. Each avatar has a different profile – troll accounts are divided into right-wing or left-wing. Cat@Net managers send us links to comment according to their instructions. Sometimes we receive posts from a copywriter that we need to paste into our accounts. We use our Slack channel “General work stuff” to share posts we have been working on and ask our colleagues for comment. That is how we open up fake discussions – when we, the trolls, share messages between our accounts, third-party users join in the conversation. They don’t know that it was the trolls who provoked that discussion. But the debate develops and attracts traffic.

For whom do the trolls write? When I began working on the farm, the Lame Rebellion focused on several topics.

We have been asked to use fake accounts to build artificial network traffic and promote public television TVP. My fictitious account on culture, intended to support TVP, and another one that “hates those who blast and spit on #TVP”, or TVPolakow_1, run by Alicja, is one of the numerous Cat@Net services that work in TVP’s favour.

During the week, employees receive TVP-related links to comment. We then have to paste them into an Excel file. It contains the name of our avatar and our comment. At the end of the month, a report on all activities is created, one that summarises them.

Links to articles forwarded to us to be commented on, include audience measurement according to AGB Nielsen Media Research. TVP’s performance has been getting worse, so it has long tried to change the company that provides viewership data. Trolls from Cat@Net use their avatars to undermine Nielsen’s research – they claim their methods are outdated and no match for the competition. We are asked to comment on posts in which TVP was (although only briefly) labelled as the audience leader after an episode of “The Farmer wants a wife.”

In March, the Lame Rebellion launches an offensive aimed at defending TVP. We are to downplay a dispute between TVP journalist Piotr Owczarski, who accused the public broadcaster of mobbing. We support TVP during an open discussion about the rationale behind a costly event organised by the public television in Zakopane. The troll farm also comes to the defence of TVP CEO Jacek Kurski, who is known for having a heavy foot. When the court adopts a favourable ruling on the crash of Kurski’s limo, we try to increase internet traffic. TVPolakow_1 becomes the leader in supporting TVP. What is our plan? We ridicule Piotr Owczarski’s attempts to accuse TVP and argue that the event in Zakopane is an attempt to attack the national TV broadcaster. Also, we quickly inform the public about the ruling that proves favourable for Jacek Kurski – he is found only to be co-responsible for the accident.

In the meantime, TVPolakow_1 gets 127,700 impressions; its tweets reach about 446,000 users. In March alone, all Cat@Net accounts involved in an attempt to support TVP generate a total of over 3 million views.

8. The Client

On Cat@Net website, we read that its managers “have successfully run image campaigns, including election campaigns at various levels.” This turns out to be true. The Lame Rebellion is a critical element of Andrzej Szejna’s campaign. Szejna is a politician and candidate of the leftist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in the European and later Poland’s general elections.

Support for Szejna is generated using left-wing troll accounts that react to everything Szejna does – to every tweet, every report, every article, every tag on Twitter that includes Szejna. Cat@Net avatars’ comments follow the politician’s itinerary. It’s for him that we create an individual Slack channel called “Leftist Accounts”. There, we paste all posts from Twitter in which Szejna was tagged.

In discussions with Szejna we, however, use right-wing accounts. Their attacks are supposed to correspond to entries from our left-wing accounts. Why? To create traffic so that people believe that Szejna is a popular candidate. We do some fact-checking, and it turns out that most tweets about Szejna have been created by trolls. From time to time, the trolls talk with each other. Support for Szejna in social networking sites is artificial.

When Fundacja Reporterów checks the documents at the National Electoral Commission, which keeps financial statements of all parties, it turns out that there is no expenditure for the Cat@Net campaign. It indicates that someone – Szejna claims it wasn’t him – illegally financed his social media campaign.

On October 13, Andrzej Szejna is elected a member of the Polish parliament.

The Lame Rebellion, apart from right-wing and left-wing accounts, also maintains accounts that pose as those set up by military experts. After an anonymous client provides instructions, the accounts promote Italian Leonardo helicopters. They write about their advantages and possible benefits they might bring for the Polish army. In our tweets, we tag Poland’s minister of defence, prime minister and people associated with the military sector so that our opinions reach the broadest possible audience. We organise a media attack campaign that targets American F-35 aircraft, which the Polish government intends to buy. Our fictitious accounts keep repeating the same message over and over again – the order of the F-35 will be a disastrous waste of money.

We, the trolls, know that someone has paid for those tweets. We don’t know yet that the CBA suspected that it was Bartłomiej Misiewicz who had initiated military topics at Cat@Net.

In September, during Poland’s parliamentary election campaign, a rather unusual press conference is held. Although the army and the order of the F-35 are not the topics of the campaign, Andrzej Szejna’s party (SLD) organises a press conference. He announces that if he comes to power, he will terminate the contract for the F-35.

Accounts managed by trolls comment on articles related to the defence industry; they are present – courtesy of the Internet – at military fairs or in hangars. The managers brief them on what topics they need to comment on, and they act accordingly. They open up discussions, try to convince the public opinion to adopt a point of view they have been told to promote. If someone commissions such work, it means they have already paid for it.

There are many more topics covered by the Lame Rebellion, but a similar mechanism works every time – fake discussions are created that social media users grow to believe are genuine. Trolls mimic real users, create content to inspire trust, but also manipulate and spread disinformation. They write comments that play into the hands of their clients. They build a “positive image of the client and stimulate activities to build him”. The Lame Rebellion “not only cares about good communication with the recipient of content but also interacts with them, prompting them to act.”

9. The Senior Troll

September. I let Alicja know that I got bored working on the farm. Alicja suggests I might become a project manager at RUCH SA. I accept and, as a result, I can now access a full list of avatars, a complete list of fake accounts. I oversee eight trolls who are trying to improve the image of RUCH SA (the company has found itself under considerble  financial strain and is undergoing restructuring). There is no surprise as to what my fake accounts will do. They will comment on posts published by Facebook and Twitter users. They will also try to increase traffic on Google business cards, resorting to “word-of-mouth” marketing to “neutralise” negative opinions. Troll accounts stress that Ruch has a 100-year tradition.

As a manager, I have to collect comments in one Excel file and send reports to my superiors on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. By reporting the activities of troll accounts, I have to show them that the tasks commissioned by RUCH are being implemented. This time I am supposed to monitor the Internet and search for articles that include a reference to RUCH , and then come up with responses to comments left by real internet users and then send those replies to the trolls. Trolls have to create positive content and respond to the negative one. When responding to real opinions, trolls create fake ones.

As a project manager, I ask a copywriter to suggest for entries on RUCH channels. The part-time copywriter at the troll farm is a journalist at Radio Złote Przeboje. When a post about a commissioned topic is published online, I give my trolls the green light – it’s time to go online and comment.

October. Having spent six months at a troll farm, I hand in my resignation. We already know that Cat@Net is a troll farm that is used by “large enterprises, small businesses (…) and other entities, including public administration institutions and private individuals.” We also know that Cat@Net works for a large agency called AM Art-Media PR, which has been associated with the ruling PiS party and since 2015 has received orders from state-controlled companies.

It’s time to connect the dots. After we ask the head of Cat@Net about the fictitious account activity online and the relationships with Bartłomiej Misiewicz, the internal channels on Slack channels that contained discussions and managers’ orders were removed overnight.


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