How Samantha Bee’s ‘Full Frontal’ Tracked Down Russia’s Pro-Trump Trolls
Two Full Frontal with Samantha Bee field producers tell us how they ended up interviewing masked trolls in Russia. Plus, an exclusive clip from tonight’s Part Two.
When Full Frontal executive producer Miles Kahn decided to travel with host Samantha Bee to Moscow for a series of field piece segments on how America could turn into Russia if Donald Trump becomes president, they had no idea how relevant that story would feel on the eve of Election Day.
This was back in mid-summer when the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government, through since-fired manager Paul Manafort and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, were just starting to bubble up to the surface.
“This was a huge story that a lot of western journalists really hadn’t talked about that much,” Kahn, who also produced Bee’s field pieces at The Daily Show, tells The Daily Beast. “It wasn’t by design but it seems it has now come to a boiling point so, for whatever reason, we got lucky with this issue we chose to investigate. We knew it was going to be part of the conversation, but we didn’t realize it was going to be so domineering this late in the game.”
The team ended up traveling to Russia in early October, where Bee interviewed a couple of masked trolls who say they have been paid by the Kremlin to post negative things about Hillary Clinton—and positive messages about Trump—all over U.S. social and traditional media websites.
As producer Razan Ghalayini tells me, the show worked with journalists like former Gawker writer Adrian Chen, who wrote about the Russian troll phenomenon for The New York Times Magazine back in June 2015, to identify people willing to speak to Bee on camera.
“I can’t tell you exactly how we got them, because I think people might get in trouble,” Ghalayini says, mysteriously. The trolls insisted on having their faces covered and didn’t want any of their specific fake accounts revealed because those could be traced back to their real identities. In order to prove that the subjects were capable of doing what they said they could, the show actually hired them to troll Full Frontal using the hashtag #SleazySam. Asked if there has been any “blowback” from the trolls since the segment aired, Ghalayini jokes, “Just the blowback we paid for.”
This week, on the eve of the election, Full Frontal turns from Russia’s attempt to use social media to influence American democracy to its use of state television to suppress satire—including some parallels to what we could expect from a Trump administration.
They began by talking to the man Kahn describes as Russia’s Bill O’Reilly. “He’s one of the most popular news hosts on Russian state television,” he says. “All of their news is run by the Kremlin. And 90 percent of Russians get their news from Russian state television.” The O’Reilly-type character is “such an outrageous person that the bits with him are just inherently funny,” he adds. “This guy, he’s such a clown that it’s incredible that he’s on television. But I guess if you look at our television, we have clowns too.”
“We sort of pair this up with what Trump has said about the media, in terms of blacklisting journalists and his general contempt for the media,” Kahn says. “And how he’s gotten his supporters to share in this contempt. And we take a look at what Russia has to deal with and what maybe a future Trump presidency might be like for people like Samantha in the media.”
“What’s interesting for us, when we dug into the story, is that one of the first things to go was satire,” Kahn continues, citing Trump’s angry tweets at Saturday Night Live as a harbinger of things to come. “That’s what frightens them the most. They don’t want people to laugh at them. There’s so many parallels to the rhetoric that comes out of the Trump campaign, where they just don’t want to be laughed at.”
Compared to Jordan, which Kahn says was “very welcoming” when the show came to shoot a series of pieces on the Syrian refugee crisis earlier this year, “there was a lot more red tape” when it came to filming in Russia.
As for the complicated and seemingly bromantic relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, the show spoke to Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen, who helped to clarify the idea, popularized by Trump, that Putin has called him “brilliant.” As Gessen explains in the exclusive clip below from tonight’s show, the word Putin used translates better as “colorful.”
After speaking to experts in Russia, the Full Frontal team is fairly certain Putin only wants Trump to be president because he would destabilize American democracy. “Russia is an authoritarian regime and authoritarian regimes don’t benefit from the vision of democracy being the best version of governance,” Ghalayini says. “By bringing everybody else down, they bring themselves up. I don’t think Putin cares about Trump as much as he cares that the U.S. seems less strong.”
Kahn agrees. “It’s not so much that Putin wants Trump,” he says. “He probably prefers him in the long run, but he would almost rather the election be contested. They want chaos.” Putin also thinks he’ll be able to “control” Trump, he says, “that he’ll sow chaos in America and that America will have its eye off the ball, leaving Russia more room to operate globally and do whatever they want to do.”
With all of this talk about the potentially dire consequences of Russia’s meddling in American politics, it’s sometimes easy to forget that, at the end of the day, Full Frontal is still a comedy show. “It’s definitely the challenge of what we do,” Kahn says. “We’ve been picking topics that aren’t incredibly funny. How do we make something that’s so inherently not funny, funny? Hell if I know.”
The obvious answer? Samantha Bee. “Sam’s really our ace in the hole,” Ghalayini says. “She finds joy and humor in the most bizarre things.”
Fellow Daily Show alum John Oliver has long insisted that what he does every week on Last Week Tonight should not be characterized as “journalism,” but Kahn is not so quick to dismiss that description of the work they are doing at Full Frontal.
“It’s a form of journalism,” he says, noting there are journalists on staff and a research department that fact-checks everything before it airs. “But we also have a mandate to make things funny and interesting and entertaining. So it’s not journalism in a traditional sense, because the point of view is pretty in your face. I think we try to respect the fact that we can’t just make shit up.”
And like most things in the world of political comedy these days, it can all be traced directly back to Jon Stewart. “It’s the idea of finding stories that are not inherently funny to tell and not being afraid to have your point of view,” Kahn says. “The DNA of what Jon taught us is that the best idea wins, the funniest idea wins. That DNA remains with us and remains with John Oliver and I think everyone who does what we do feels that.”