The Kremlin’s network of professional propaganda-spewing internet trolls is large. According to one former insider, there are thousands of Russians who work full-time jobs publishing social media updates, internet comments, and blog posts specifically designed to foment hatred for the U.S. and support for the Russian government. And their trolling may not be limited to the web, or to Russian soil.
Last fall, a widely advertised photography exhibition called Material Evidence. Syria. Ukraine opened at ArtBeam, a large, warehouse-style gallery in Manhattan. Though it purported to give an unbiased look at the recent violent unrest in each of the titular countries, Material Evidence stunk unmistakably of pro-government propaganda. The Ukraine section of the exhibition broadly depicted all Euromaidan protesters as neo-Nazis, and several of the Syrian photos were provided to organizers by the Syrian government itself.
Curator Benjamin Hiller told me at the time that despite apparent connections to Russia’s far-right press, a loose collective of independent photojournalists was behind the exhibition, not a reactionary media mogul or shady disinformation agency. When I asked Hiller’s assistant about Material Evidence’s finances, she told me that a mysterious man brought a bag of cash to a previous installment of the show and left it for the organizers without any explanation. Given Russia’s alliance with Syria and obvious interest in quelling Ukrainian dissent, it felt like the Kremlin—or someone acting in its interests—may have been involved.
In his New York Times Magazine feature about the Internet Research Agency—the official name given to the Kremlin’s online rabble-rousing department—former Gawker writer Adrian Chen provides a link between Material Evidence and Russia’s troll army. After following a number of social media accounts that had previously been revealed as Internet Research puppets, Chen noticed that several affiliated dummy Facebook profiles had signed up to attend the exhibition.
When I got home, I searched Twitter for signs of a campaign. Sure enough, dozens of accounts had been spamming rave reviews under the hashtag #MaterialEvidence. I clicked on one, a young woman in aviator sunglasses calling herself Zoe Foreman. (I later discovered her avatar had been stolen.)
Whether or not Internet Research actually produced Material Evidence, it seems clear that the agency at least provided PR support for the mysterious exhibition. Chen also notes that Hiller later disassociated himself with the Material Evidence project, citing its “misinformations” and “nonjournalistic approach.”
The Material Evidence puzzle makes up a relatively small portion of Chen’s story, which also establishes connections between Internet Research and U.S. news hoaxes regarding Ebola, a fake police shooting, and a supposed ISIS attack at a nonexistent chemical plant, as well as a bizarre attempt to paint Chen himself as a neo-Nazi supporter in the Russian media. I highly recommend reading the article in full.