Long before Russia ever launched social media campaigns in the US, Kremlin-backed trolling was alive and well at home. In this online underworld of paid seeders, twitterati and trolls, “demotivators” — Russian internet picture memes — play a special bottom-feeder role.
Take вштабе.рф, a Russian-language domain name with documented ties to the now-infamous Internet Research Agency “troll farm” in St. Petersburg. To state the obvious, the website is intended for Russians. The images are meant as visuals to accompany Russian troll postings on social media and blogs.
The web, of course, has always been both hive mind and outrage machine. One might be tempted to say these are mere passionate voices with time on their hands and something to say. But that would ignore just how obsessively political, uniformly on-message, and truly numerous these demotivators are.
Casual browsing will bring one to the view — quickly — that most are beyond dumb. And, as with Russian social media trolling of the US elections, the effectiveness of the images is debatable. Yet their sheer volume — and evolving subject matter — suggests someone finds demotivators a worthy investment.
“Yes, they’re stupid, but they play a huge role,” says Lyudmila Savchuk, a St. Petersburg-based journalist who worked undercover at the IRA before publishing one of the earliest accounts of the troll farm. “These demotivators work on less educated Russians’ base emotions and connect.”
So think of them as Kremlin talking points — state propaganda in picture form. Or, perhaps, a small, shadow slice of the Russian federal budget. Either way, Russian demotivators serve as a sad — and sadly informative — cog in the troll farm’s wheel of spin.
— Charles Maynes
This is part of our 'Ghost Empire' series, which looks behind the Russia’s new military prowess and greater international power.
Day 1: In Russia, a ‘ghost empire’ rises