A Russian blogger has discovered that by plugging search terms into the service Google Trends, apparently the location of some of Russia’s notorious “troll factories” can be discovered.
Google Trends, released in 2006, shows the percentage of incidence of a search term matched to a geographic location.
Otakvot on LiveJournal came up with the revelation that abnormally high number of Google searches for terms like “Right Sector,” the militant ultranationalist group in Ukraine; or “Novorossiya,” the aspirational country to be formed out of parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus; or “DNR,” the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk”; did not come from high population centers such as Moscow but turned up in Olgino, a St. Petersburg suburb.
The Interpreter has covered extensively the most notorious of the “troll factories,” the innocuously-named “Internet Research, Inc.” which moved from Olgino to 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg earlier this year.
Other areas with the highest percentages of such searches were Perekatny, population 244, and Yablonovsky, population 30,518—both suburbs of the North Caucasus city of Krasnodar, capital of Krasnodar Territory in southern Russia.
Otakvot noted that using Google Trends, it wasn’t surprising to find that a term like “tourism” in Russia turned up the highest frequency in Moscow and Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryat Mongolia, or “edible mushroom” was sought most often in Volgograd, one of the places where Russians have died eating poisonous fungi.
But when all the terms associated with the war with the war in Ukraine turn up in Perekatny, population 244, and Yablonovsky, population 30,518—both small towns in the Adegei Republic but also suburbs just outside of the North Caucasus city of Krasnodar, capital of Krasnodar Territory in southern Russia, it’s certainly odd.
There doesn’t seem to be anything known publicly in this location except for the Kuban State University, which isn’t known for research on this subject. So the hypothesis is that there is some kind of government or pro-Kremlin installation here that is monitoring media and/or engaging in propaganda.
It makes sense when we pull back from the map and see Krasnodar is in a region of high strategic interest to Russia—near the Black Sea port of Novorossisk and across from Mariupol in Ukraine to the north and Kerch and Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea to the west.
We tested the terms in Russian on Google Trends and got the exact same results. As a control, we found if we typed in the Russian word for “weather,” the searches tended to be in some of the coldest areas of Russia, like the Nenets region where temperatures plunge to -50 Celsius, but also curiously Krasnodar Krai and Adegei showed up, although the average temperatures there are mild compared to many other hotter or colder locations in the Russian Federation.
Otakvot isn’t the first to discover this “troll trends” phenomenon, although he has got a lot of publicity in Russian social media this week for his find; in April, a group of members of a Russian systems administrators’ chat site also noted the strange correlation between the search terms for the war in Ukraine and these locations.
One systems administrator found that there was an abnormally high interest in the term “Obama” in Olgino and Perekatny, with Moscow, which would presumably be more typically preoccupied with foreign affairs, only in third place.
Searches for the name of an extremist Ukrainian parliamentarian named Oleg Lyashko turned up the highest in Perekatny and Zelyony Gorod, a suburb of Nizhny Novgorod where both Otakvot and the systems administrators found a high incidence of the Ukrainian war terms and therefore believe there is a “troll factory” there.
The term “DNR”—the acronym for the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk” shows up not at all in Moscow but first in Taganrog, a large city near the Ukrainian border where Russian convoys on their way to Ukraine have often been spotted, second in Perekatny again, then in Kursk and Olgino.
Moscow—where there should be hundreds of state journalists writing on the topic—isn’t first for “Novorossiya,” either, but Perekatny is; followed by Olgino and Belgorod—another town where bloggers suspect there could be some sort of “troll farm.” Zelyony Gorod is in fourth place.
Perhaps the trolls are more active on terms associated with the Ukrainian war than with the Russian domestic opposition.
“Alexey Navalny,” the name of the opposition leader who won 30% of the vote in the Moscow mayoral election of 2013, the frequent target of fabricated criminal cases in retaliation for his challenge to Putin, shows up first in Kirov Region, second in Moscow, and third in St. Petersburg. Why Kirov? This was the site of one of his criminal trials, the Kirovoles lumber fraud case for which he is serving a suspended sentence. This revelation from Google Trend suggests that when the Kremlin persecutes opposition figures, it only invites more interest in them.
Pro-Kremlin bloggers have responded to these exposes by saying that they are anomalies or that the Kremlin trolls would cloak their Internet service provider and wouldn’t be identifiable by location. But while such propaganda workers may hide their ISP when trolling forums and media comment sections, they may not do so when at work doing research.
The Russian bloggers seem to have made their case—even the term “Ukraine” produces the highest hits in Belgorod and Perekatny—and also Yablonovsky and Olgino.
More investigation will be needed to figure out what kind of institution is performing these services and to what end. While the hypothesis that these areas are the same kind of operations as Olgino, they could just as likely be intelligence agency installations monitoring media and communications for these terms. In that sense, it’s too bad Google Trends doesn’t work in reverse—that hovering over a geographical location reveals its most common searches and thus intentions (although Google engineers can see this information.)
The “troll factories” are unlikely to disappear any time soon although they may be driven further underground by these exposes. Recently Ludmila Savchuk, a former employee of the office at 55 Savushkina who had gone undercover to work for Internet Research, Inc., sued her employer for a symbolic one ruble for unpaid wages and won her suit, Deutsche Welle reported. Her main purpose was to prove that the operation existed, although her goal of getting it shut down was not met.
—Catherine A. Fitzpatrick