A regional journalist who exposed possible Russian propaganda in local newspapers has since been targeted by a suspected “troll factory” bombarding him with abusive comments.
Last month HTFP reported how the Bristol Post exposed pro-Brexit reader’s letters published in at least eight other regional newspapers as being possible Kremlin-style “influence operations” after it investigated an email it had received from a person purporting to be a Russian woman living on its patch.
The Post found the woman, who went by the name ‘Veronika Oleksychenko’, had claimed to live at an address in Bristol which does not exist and had also had similar letters published in several other regional newspapers – including the Sunderland Echo, Wilts and Glos Standard, West Sussex County Times and Bath Chronicle, each time claiming a connection to their respective patches.
The story, together with a follow-up, prompted a total of 162 comments on the newspaper’s Bristol Live sister site, and analysis has now found 95 of them came from the same source, despite appearing to be from 45 different profiles created shortly before the comments were posted.
The comments posted by these profiles either praised Ms Oleksychenko or attacked Conor Gogarty, the journalist who wrote the story, with insults including “twisted little creep”, “cretin”, “world-class p****” and “very fake journalist”. One comment called for Conor, pictured, to be sacked and sent “to the Gulag”.
In some instances, one user would reply to another which was connected to the same IP address, praising the comment that had just been posted.
In its attempts to contact those commenting via the email address they had provided, the Post received “bounce backs” stating that the addresses could not be found.
According to an IP address tracker, the device used to post the comments was based in Dorset, although the tracker warned this was likely to be a ‘mail server’, a digital post office which delivers emails to and from a client computer without having to reveal that device’s location.
Disinformation expert Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of the Defending Democracy initiative, told the Post: “It seems you uncovered a tiny political information operation. So what exactly are we looking at here?
“A British pro-Brexit troll factory? A Russian troll factory based in the UK, to make it harder to link their operations to the Kremlin? Or just a whizz kid hoping to get a gig but who forgot about the IP address? Whatever it is, it’s very sloppy work – if I were Putin I wouldn’t hire them.”
Ms Stollmeyer added: “Trolls often operate in ‘teams’. In a Russian troll factory, employees are given separate ‘roles’ they must play while maintaining their online personae. For example, one attacks, two others agree or provide more information. Together, they create the illusion of genuine activity on internet forums.
“In this case it is clear the trolls were instructed or agreed among themselves to use similar talking points – attacking the journalist, calling him ‘conspiracy-obsessed’, ‘immoral’ and a ‘stalker’, claiming (he) knew Veronika and fancied her.”
The Post reported the personal abuse aimed at Conor bore similarities to the case of Finnish journalist Jesikka Aro, who was besieged with abuse after writing a piece in 2014 on Russian ‘troll farms’ – operations which are accused of spreading disinformation in Western countries through the internet on issues including Brexit and immigration.
The Russian government has repeatedly denied using troll farms to interfere with Western countries.
HTFP itsef last week received an email from ‘Ms Oleksychenko’ following our coverage of the Post’s investigation, in which she repeatedly claimed: “The journalist and paper were only interested because they saw an opportunity to make a negative shadow over Brexit.”
Conor told HTFP: “It has been interesting and slightly disturbing to follow the trail of letters and comments. Back when we received that first message, I would never have expected it to lead where it did. It seems unlikely that I’ll ever get a stranger story, but in this line of work you can never be sure.”