While Russia continues to fuel its proxy war in Ukraine, the Kremlin is also waging a massive digital war against Poland by deploying an army of internet trolls on Polish websites spewing pro-Russia propaganda.
The Russian troll army is targeting popular Polish news websites and forums in order to create a rift between Ukraine and Poland. Observers believe the Kremlin is employing the online army in an attempt to draw support for Russia in Poland, a former Soviet satellite.
“I noticed that on November 24, 2013, that is three days after the beginning of the Maidan, comments suddenly appeared on this site that were written by hundreds of new profiles that had been created on social networks in a matter of days,” Mateusz Bajek, editor of the Polish portal site Kaukaz.pl, told Radio Free Liberty.
Bajek explained that the new user profiles inundated posts and articles with pro-Russia comments, but were suspiciously deleted after he drew attention to them. The trolls simply create new accounts after they’re exposed.
Catching the trolls is not terribly difficult, according to Bajek. Sometimes it is as easy as catching them writing in a language other than Polish because they forgot to switch accounts.
Troll hunting the internet can have serious repercussions. Kremlin trolls are vicious against those who expose them, often resorting to vitriolic personal attacks. Jessikka Aro, a Finnish journalist, knows firsthand how far the trolls are willing to go.
“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” said Aro to the New York Times.
Aro received massive abuse after investigating a so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg. Aside from regular attack emails, she was accused on social media of dealing drugs. A group identifying itself as the “Russian Troll Army’s Hybrid Warfare Department” even produced a music video mocking her as a naive, Western shill.
While the Russian troll army covers a broad swath of issues, its propaganda follows some general characteristics. In a piece for Forbes magazine, Ivana Smolenova of the Prague Security Studies Institute said that consistently propagated theme claims the West is in a state of general decline, while “Russia is portrayed as a force for moral good and traditional values.”
The trolls will often point to ongoing problems in the European Union or the supposed failed U.S. policy in Syria to promote the Kremlin’s policy, according to Smolenova.
Poland has recognized the propaganda problem, and has been one of the most vocal critics of Russian policy. In response, the government has taken some drastic actions, including banning Russian journalist Leonid Sviridov from entering the country. Sviridov works for Russia’s RIA Novosti, which operates under Russia’s Ministry of Communications and Mass Media. Polish media has hinted that Sviridov was acting as a Russian spy. He had previously been kicked out of the Czech Republic in 2006 for similar espionage allegations.
Arkady Ostrovsky, The Economist’s Moscow Bureau Chief, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that countering Russian propaganda needs to be a priority for NATO and the West. He believes supporting professional Russian speaking media is a crucial first step.
Aside from taking over online forums and social media, Russia currently operates Radio Sputnik Polska in Poland. The Kremlin founded the outlet in February 2015 to provide “diverse perspective on international news.”
In an effort to counter Russia, the Polish Foreign Ministry and the Netherlands launched a campaign in September aimed at providing an alternative. Several Western countries have contributed to the project. NATO has taken similar measures to counter Russia, and plans to create a stronger communications arm dedicated to disproving myths pushed by Russian sources.
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