Posts praising the Wagner Group boss after he died in a mysterious plane crash last month show he remains in control of his “troll farm”, researchers say.

Yveneny Prigozhin’s wartime atrocities thrust the brutal mercenary into the spotlight. But Prigozhin – a former chef to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a petty criminal – is also known as one of the world’s biggest peddlers of disinformation. For years, Prigozhin ran the notorious Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that interfered in U.S. elections and other matters.

Internet trolls did not stop posting when Prigozhin suddenly died in a mysterious plane crash on August 23, about two months after Prigozhin led a failed rebellion against Putin by Wagner Group mercenaries. Instead, some continue to express support for him, according to a new analysis shared by Wired.

In the days after his death, a coordinated network of pro-Prigozhin accounts on X (formerly Twitter) posted messages calling the warlord a hero and good for Russia, despite the Wagner Group’s failed June revolt against Putin. . The messages also blamed the West for the plane crash and said the Wagner Group would continue to operate in Africa.

“Putin has nothing to gain by killing Prigozhin. PMC [private military company] “Prigorzhin is a big presence in Africa, and despite his ‘character eccentricities’ Prigozhin has done it deftly,” one account on X wrote. Or the terrorists planted landmines on the plane,” speculated another. “In short, he dropped his phone and disappeared into the sunset like a typical action movie,” a third posted.

The organization’s accounts are identified by and shared with WIRED Antibot4Navalny, an anonymous group of volunteers that tracks Russian-language influence activity on X. A person behind the group (Wired asked not to be identified for security reasons) said that after the incident, they started checking the posts of the suspicious X account, when they “noticed that Prigozhin surprisingly Covered in a positive light.” They said the group found 30 accounts promoting pro-Prigozhin rhetoric.

The group claimed that this activity may indicate that Prigozhin still controlled the Internet Research Agency troll factory before his death, adding that it echoed similar activity they had seen before. There were reports that news websites and troll factories owned by Prigozhin were either shut down or looking for new owners after the failed uprising in June. “In the country, there is a lot of controversy over whether Prigozhin will lose control of the troll factory as one of the direct consequences of the rebellion,” said Antibot4Navalny member.

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Experts say that while the posts on Russia’s misinformation and disinformation industry has grown into a rich ecosystem of state-backed media, vast Telegram channels and more traditional social media posts. Millions of people follow so-called military bloggers and war reporters on Telegram — some of these channels are linked to the Russian state, while others are aligned with Pyrgozhin and the Wagner Group. But all of this risks muddying the waters or repeating a well-established path.

“Confusion in the information space is one of the goals of the Kremlin’s information operations — to make everything equally implausible, thereby undermining trust in all sources,” said Eto, a disinformation and influence operations researcher specializing in Russia. ·Eto Buziashvili said. Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Laboratory. Since the outbreak of all-out war in Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has blocked and censored social media sites, banned independent news outlets, and spread massive amounts of disinformation.

Kyle Walter, research director at misinformation and disinformation research firm Logically, reviewed the posts shared by Antibot4Navalny and said they showed “signs of inauthenticity.” Walter said that the X accounts were mostly created earlier this year, with a small number of original posts, and most of them were retweeting or replying accounts, some of which also followed each other. The themes posted by those accounts about the plane crash also matched what Logically saw from monitoring a Telegram channel linked to the Wagner Group, he said. However, Walter added that linking them directly to Internet Research Agencies is more difficult.

Researchers at Antibot4Navalny said that based on their previous research, they believe pro-Prigozhin trolls operate in a similar way. They “primarily serve” Putin’s interests, the researchers said, but they also push support for Prigozhin’s rhetoric without “harming” the Russian president. This approach, they said, “still works in the case of the plane crash: report Putin as strongly as possible and, moreover, a good opportunity to praise Prigozhin”. The researchers said they were reporting the accounts to X.

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In addition to its posts about the plane crash, the Antibot4Navalny team also shared previous research and analysis with WIRED. At one point, the organization reported more than 7,000 suspicious accounts to X. We tested dozens of such accounts and found that they had all been removed from the social media company owned by Elon Musk. Antibot4Navalny said the “troll” accounts were often active in groups, pushing “the same set of talking points” and mostly replying to news tweets about Russia and Ukraine or pro-Ukrainian channels. X did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

On July 14, Antibot4Navalny researchers said that some of the accounts they tracked responded to posts discussing Putin’s comments that the Wagner Group “does not exist” and that the group has no legal basis. Researchers said the accounts sent messages saying Wagner was operating legitimately and mentioned Concord, a catering company owned by Prigozhin. Antibot4Navalny researchers claim that these views have not appeared in any Kremlin-controlled media and that references to the company “serve the interests of troll factories/its owners, not the interests of the Kremlin.”

Atlantic Council researcher Bouziashvili said she believes troll factories are still operating. “Some of them may still support Prigozhin,” she said. “For most people who work there, they will continue to work regardless of who the current boss is.”

Buziashvili said that after the plane crash, Russian officials and state media launched multiple “theories” at the same time. She said Britain and Nato were both blamed for the plane crash in a TV show. Other examples blame Ukraine and claim that Prigozhin was not killed in the crash. Butziashvili said the pro-Wagner Telegram channel also claimed the plane was shot down by Russian airlines and they wanted “revenge”. No one has formally claimed responsibility for the blast — both Putin and Ukraine have denied involvement.

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Despite the changing information ecosystem, the amount of disinformation on Russian social media remains enormous. According to the European Commission, Russian disinformation reached an audience of “at least” 165 million and generated 16 billion views on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter/X, YouTube, TikTok and Telegram in the first year after the war in Ukraine A study of Russia-related activities published last week. The number of subscribers to the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel has “more than tripled” since the start of the war, the report said. “Preliminary analysis suggests that the influence of Kremlin-backed accounts further expanded in the first half of 2023, particularly driven by the rollback of Twitter’s safety standards.”

“What we’re typically seeing now are narratives on Telegram,” said Logically’s Walter. The company recently found pro-Russian channels spreading disinformation about a military coup in Niger, and it also linked Russian fact-checking sites and Telegram accounts to a host of Russia’s “biggest” propaganda TV show. “Western influencers who are sympathetic to the Russian cause translate these narratives and then share them on mainstream platforms. And they spread farther,” he said.

Walter said that over time, mainly as a result of the war, Russian propaganda and disinformation became easier to target the West. “From a tactical standpoint, we can attribute far less direct involvement by the Russian state itself and more to these proxies,” he said. “Russia’s disinformation efforts are gradually adapting to any form of counterattack by the West.”

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