Earlier this month, Adrian Chen penned a disturbing article for the New York Times Magazine outlining how online trolls based in Russia were attempting to manipulate Americans through false media and political misdirection. These Russian trolls are now attempting to discredit his story by wiping it from the internet.
Chen's piece, called “The Agency”, details a massive operation with ties to the Russian government that perpetuates false news stories, propaganda and general trolling against anti-Russian rhetoric:
Radio Free Europe extensively documented the “troll farms” in Russia, but Chen's discovery of an English-language social media army seems almost unbelievable... Until he began documenting a number of eerie incidents, the most troubling being the #ColumbianChemicals hoax.
This media hack took place on September 11, 2014, and supposedly documented (with hundreds of coordinated tweets) a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana. The elaborate fake story included multiple copied websites and a YouTube video where ISIS took credit for the “attack”:
Plus, this video:
Chen interviewed Louisiana locals about the incident, who called it a sick prank. Chen, however, had come to a different conclusion:
The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention.
The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project.
A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.
Chen had discovered a lead through documents from Russia that were hacked by Anonymous International. The hacked messages included emails from an organization called the Internet Research Agency — the same group employing trolls in Russia.
The emails revealed a number of user names for an operation in English. Chen then began the long process of cross-referencing, and he did find a connection. So, he decided to travel to Russia and confirm his theory, which is when his story shifts from odd to frightening.
While researching and validating his findings, Russian media outlets with vague connections to the Internet Research Agency and the Kremlin, began an operation to discredit him. After he unknowingly met a Neo-Nazi, the Russian press vilified him, saying he was recruiting for the U.S. They even went so far as to create a propaganda video (which proved his entire trip had been under surveillance).
Chen's chilling story became all the more disturbing when his meticulous sourcing of troll accounts, and even the damning YouTube video, were wiped from the internet. All three of the Facebook pages Chen mentioned as part of the trolling network made up of mostly politically-motivated accounts (Spread Your Wings, Art Gone Conscious, and Celebrities Against Obama) mysteriously disappeared in the past week. Their Twitter counterparts also vanished.
The only thing left are the #ColumbianChemicals tweets, all posted by accounts with barely a handful of followers, abandoned months ago.
So what happens now? While the Russia troll army deletes the evidence Chen meticulously provided, they have continued with smaller media stunts, just as fake. Other examples include a supposed Chicago Tribune banner referencing Ukraine:
And this one, which claims Russian tanks were projected on the White House:
Lyudmila Savchuk, a whistleblower formerly employed by Internet Research Agency, is suing the troll-machine in an attempt to shut down the operation. Her court date has been postponed to June 23rd, but in the meantime, the online Russian agency will continue to spread their propaganda with each insidious tweet.