In the fall of 2014, soon after he moved to St. Petersburg from his hometown in Siberia, Vitaly Bespalov, an aspiring journalist, came across a series of online job listings for a “content manager.” They looked too good to be true. The pay was 45,000 rubles per month – around $700 at the time – well above the starting salary in his field. “There were no requirements,” he recalls. “No job descriptions.” And no mention of the informal title that came with the position: Internet troll.
After a short interview with a company manager, Bespalov began clocking in every morning at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg, the home of Russia’s now-infamous troll factory, otherwise known as the Internet Research Agency.
The daily grind was simple: create fake accounts on social media and use them to post comments online as the bosses instructed. The broader effort of the factory, however, was a state-of-the-art propaganda campaign. And over the next few years, it set out to interfere in the course of a U.S. presidential election, according to an indictment handed down on Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Bespalov says he stopped working at the factory by January 2015 and was not involved in that campaign. To his relief, he was also not among the thirteen Russians charged by the Special Counsel. But on a recent afternoon, he agreed to show TIME how the trolls at the factory operated. Its bosses imposed a few strict rules. First, never be late and never leave early. Second, never criticize President Vladimir Putin online, at least not while on the clock. “We were not even allowed to say anything funny about Putin,” Bespalov says. “We would either talk positively about him or not at all.”
Apart from a few ideological employees who referred to themselves as “Putin’s trolls,” the staff at the factory was mostly indifferent to politics and motivated only by money, says Bespalov. They were paid to meet specific quotas for online comments, blogs and other posts on social media. They were given strict instructions on what issues to write about and how to spin the news of the day.
Their most frequent target at the end of 2014 was President Barack Obama, whom they depicted as a loser or a fool in comparison to Russia’s President, says Bespalov; German Chancellor Angela Merkel was meanwhile cast as a fascist; Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was depicted as a pig.
As the weeks dragged on, it was the mindlessness and venom of these posts that led Bespalov to quit not long after he started. His boss at the factory, a woman named Anna, was disappointed to hear it. “‘This is life,’” he remembers her telling him as she pointed out the window. “We are Pro-Kremlin over here and they are Pro-American over there.’”
“My manager saw things as black or white,” Bespalov says. “People were either Pro-Kremlin or Pro-American. She could not comprehend something in the middle.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the years Bespalov worked at the Internet Research Agency. It was from 2014 to 2015, not 2015 to 2016.
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