The Russian government is operating a center in St. Petersburg that posts website comments in support of the government.
The center is officially named the Agency for Internet Studies. But in Internet slang, it is called a “troll factory.” A troll factory generates comments to post on websites around the world.
In this case, the comments support the actions of the Russian government.
Workers at the center post up to 30,000 website comments per day. They aim to show deep support for the state’s actions.
The “troll factory” was exposed earlier this year. A former employee sued the Agency for Internet Studies for underpayment and other labor violations.
Organizations have emerged to expose stories of government corruption. One of the agencies is called Conflict Intelligence Team or (CIT). Ruslan Leviev is the founder.
He says his team reports the truth about Russian society because “Russia’s national media spew absurd information and hate-inducing propaganda.”
He says his group presents a neutral view of what is happening in Russia.
Leviev and other bloggers are raising questions about how the news is reported in Russia.
CIT reports on Russian military deaths, which are considered state secrets.
Russia started a military campaign in Syria in October. That campaign supports Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
The first Russian casualty in Syria was Vadim Kostenko, who died in October. His death was not reported by the government to the news media in Russia.
CIT only found the news by looking through social media sites.
When the Russian authorities acknowledged the death, they called it a suicide. The death is being investigated by Russia’s military prosecutor’s office.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in May that all military deaths are state secrets. So Leviev and his group are breaking the law by publishing information about military deaths.
Leviev says he and his team have lawyers ready to help them if they are arrested.
CIT is not alone. There are other Internet sleuths in Russia.
An anti-corruption blog regularly writes about the lavish homes of government leaders.
Russia’s defense minister lives in an $18-million home purchased under the name of a relative. It is in the same fancy suburb where President Putin lives.
A number of other top-ranking government officials live in expensive houses, too. They all say they are not doing anything wrong.
One of the government security agencies is trying to make it illegal to publicize who owns these big homes in Russia.
In some countries, home ownership records are public. But in Russia, it is difficult to discover this kind of information. One of the groups uses drones – or unmanned aircraft – to take photos of the fancy estates.
It is also difficult to report Russian military deaths in Ukraine. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine started about two years ago. The Russian government says most of their troops killed in Ukraine are “volunteers.” In official statements, the Russian government says it did not send any fighters to Ukraine.
When a Russian soldier dies, his family receives a death benefit. It is a financial package to compensate the family for their loss. But families say they are threatened with the loss of their death benefits if they say that a relative died.
Groups like CIT say hundreds of Russians were killed while fighting in Ukraine.
Freedom House is an international human rights group. It released a study in October saying Russia is becoming less free online.
Freedom House scores countries based on a scale of 1-100. Iceland received a 6, the best score.
The lower the score, the more open a country is online. Russia earned a 62, putting it in the group of countries where the Internet is “not free.” It means information on the Internet in Russia is tightly controlled.
That makes it even harder for these “sleuths” to uncover news. But so far, they are making progress.
I’m Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell adapted this VOA News story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.
What do you think of Internet freedom in your country? Is it easy to find out about controversial things? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
absurd – adj. extremely silly, foolish, or unreasonable : completely ridiculous
blogger – n. someone who writes about personal opinions, activities, and experiences on a web site
casualty – v. a person who is hurt or killed during an accident, war, etc.
drone – n. an aircraft controlled remotely sometimes used for spying or warfare
lavish – adj. having a very rich and expensive quality
opponent – n. a person, group, etc., that is against something (such as an action, law, or system) : someone or something that does not want something to exist, be done, etc.
score – n. the number of points, goals, runs, etc., that each player or team has in a game or contest
slang - n. words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people
sleuth - v. someone who looks for information to solve crimes
spew - v. to flow out of something in a fast and forceful way