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Where do pro-Russian trolls go when they die?

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Beatrice Mcartney, one of Romania’s most energetic pro-Russian activists on Facebook, has disappeared from the online troll world. Over the past few months, she had started several Facebook groups dedicated to alternative foreign affairs news—with most items coming from Kremlin-inspired media like RT, Sputnik, and the YouTube channel In the now, and populated by a variety of fake profiles. She also has written a number of articles—some dating back to 2014—for a Romanian nationalist, anti-Western online platform. Now a shadow troll, Beatrice’s Facebook profile is inactive, but her followers still sometimes quote her posts taken apparently from VKontakte (VK), the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Whether she has been extricated or simply blocked as a result of Facebook’s reporting rules, pro-Russian activity on this social platform in Romania seems to have slowed down.
In the past few months, hardcore pro-Russian Facebook activists have been complaining that Facebook—and Romanian intelligence— are policing their conversations and public posts. This type of surveillance conspiracy served the trolls very well in constructing and promoting an inherently ironic narrative focused on freedom of speech and alternative news. Some appealed to their followers to create VK profiles and move their conversations to a space where they could converse “freely.” This seems to be part of a broader migration worldwide by various alt-right, nationalist, and anti-Western groups from Facebook to VK. 

The pro-Russian activists’ anti-Facebook rhetoric—and the simultaneous accusations against nameless “intelligence agents” who are presumably keeping them under surveillance—is ironic, because VK has had a controversial history and is the focus of allegations that the Kremlin uses friendly oligarchs to control the internet while giving the appearance of free speech. In fact, a new Kremlin decree prohibits VKontakte and messaging apps from disclosing their interactions with security agencies, while at the same time obliges apps to grant them remote access. The decree builds on previously existing legislation that requires internet companies to store users’ data on servers accessible to law enforcement agencies. This makes VK hardly a safe haven for those seeking unencumbered conversations outside the purview of surveillance agencies.

But Facebook’s recent policy changes targeting fake profiles, as well as algorithm glitches, might indeed have caused some profiles—legitimate or not—to be temporarily or permanently disabled. It is possible that Beatrice Mcartney’s disappearance is a result of her having been reported to Facebook so many times that the company decided to suspend her profile. It is hard to believe, however, that Facebook has developed such a sophisticated mechanism to spot pro-Kremlin trolls and neutralize them. Technology hasn’t gotten that smart yet. On the other hand, as social media companies develop apps to expose Russian propaganda online, it is plausible that the Kremlin might be regrouping or changing its disinformation tactics.

We already know how search engine manipulation works in propagating disinformation; power is in numbers. But it is hard to discern whether a strategy (political or merely commercial) lurks behind VK’s apparent popularity—some sort of honey pot to increase the number of clicks and visitors for either more revenue, or a larger pool of users for spreading disinformation.

Internet rankings are confusing. Accurate data is lacking, and otherwise credible sources of information about online traffic are subject to manipulation. For instance, Alexa ranks VK as the most popular site in Russia, and says it ranks 14th worldwide and No. 4 in Moldova, Ukraine, and Estonia; No. 5 in Latvia and Romania, and No. 7 in Lithuania. In Romania’s case at least, the statistics seem unbelievable, since the country has few Russian speakers and only insignificant cultural affinities with Russia. Moreover, the figures are not consistent with other rankings, in which VK doesn’t even make the list of Romania’s 50 most visited sites. Of course, algorithms for gathering traffic data differ, but in this case the results are quite striking .

Doctoring traffic data may be a marginal concern, however, next to the growing possibilities for corrupting the information space through psychological profiling, micro-targeting, or artificial intelligence. This bears global relevance and artisans of disinformation are most likely already developing their new tools. Trolls and sock puppets like Beatrice Mcartney might thus become obsolete in the near future. But for now in Romania, more attention needs to be paid to the significance of the apparent slowdown in troll activity (since Beatrice, one of the most active ones, has mysteriously disappeared) on Facebook and whether it indicates a change in Kremlin information tactics, a reorientation of its resources, or maybe a temporary regrouping of bureaucratic forces .