The Guardian’s comment section moderators believe there is an “orchestrated campaign” by Russian pro-Kremlin trolls to swamp the online debate about events concerning Ukraine.
In a blog post, readers’ editor Chris Elliott outlined suspicions from both readers and Guardian reporters that the comments section was the target of a deliberate campaign to attack any sentiment that did not fit the Russian narrative.
One reader wrote to the editor’s office on 6 March complaining of being “incredibly frustrated and disillusioned” by the paper’s inability to police “the waves of Nashibot trolls who’ve been relentlessly posting pro-Putin propaganda in the comments on Ukraine v Russia coverage”.
In another complaint, the writer said: “One need only pick a Ukraine article at random, pick any point in the comments at random, and they will find themselves in a sea of incredibly aggressive and hostile users.”
In the blog, Elliott specifically noted attacks towards one Guardian writer in particular, Luke Harding.
“In fairness, there is no conclusive evidence about who is behind the trolling, although Guardian moderators, who deal with 40,000 comments a day, believe there is an orchestrated campaign,” Elliott wrote.
“Harding, who is inured to the abuse, would simply like better systems to deal with it, as would the moderation and community teams.”
In 2012, the Guardian reported on a pro-Kremlin group running a “network of internet trolls” aiming to provide flattering coverage of Russian president Vladimir Putin and hatch plans to discredit opposition activists and media.
According to the report, the Russian arm of Anonymous gathered and published hundreds of the group’s emails, which detailed correspondence to and from the head of the Kremlin’s Federal Youth Agency.
The claims are not the first in recent months to suggest covert use of online and social media as a form of more subtle propaganda. In April, it was reported that US authorities had backed a secret social media programme designed to create instability in Cuba by encouraging dissent and unrest.