Evolution of Russia's State-Sponsored Trolling, Its Discursive Strategies and Post-Prighozhin Dynamics

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationResearch


Continued efforts of state-sponsored actors to influence public opinion online have prompted some scholars to reconsider the role of social media as a platform with significant democratizing potential. The studies into state-sponsored social media trolling have further revealed the broad scope and sheer audacity of such organized manipulation campaigns spanning dozens of countries and challenging some of the core principles and values deemed fundamental in modern democracies: transparency, accountability, the rule of law. Russia’s state-sponsored trolling efforts carried out through Internet Research Agency (IRA) and other entities have stood out in garnering considerable public attention, particularly in the case of 2016 US Presidential Election, wherein the US authorities launched a full-scale investigation into Russia’s multifaceted attempts at interference with the election process. Russia’s social media trolling operation was designed to interfere with the functioning of democratic institutions, exacerbate existing societal divisions, propagate falsehoods of various degrees, and much more, however, it was not limited to elections or a single geography. As the most recent evidence shows, it developed out of a small group of online commentators besmirching Russia’s opposition into a monumental structure comprising more than 600 entities and targeting wide domestic and foreign audiences. We use publicly available Twitter/ X’s and Clemson University’s Anglophone and Russophone data on IRA and GRU (Russia’s military intelligence) actors and compare it with “non-troll” users’ output on three high-profile cases (2014 Crimea’s annexation, 2016 US Presidential Election, COVID-19 Pandemic) while tracing the evolution of Russia’s state-sponsored trolling over time, situating it within its historical and current socio-political context. We employ a set of computational methods (Python NLTK, ProtAnt, Sketch Engine) and qualitative approaches (Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis, tools of systemic functional linguistics, Bakhtin’s dialogic analysis, and collocation analysis) to investigate the trolls’ discourse, identify their strategies and tactics, while largely focusing on trolls’ language use and implications thereof. In the wake of IRA’s and Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demise and a surge of media coverage of that topic, we also closely examine the evidence about the possible future of Russia’s trolling operation. The most recent data points to the fact that despite the claims that the apparently defunct Prigozhin’s media empire, including the notorious “troll factory” has ceased following the Wagner Group rebellion and the later passing of its founder, the “factory”’s social media channels continue to actively produce and disseminate content. Although the evidence is yet limited, there is a strong indication that Russia’s state-sponsored online “trolling” is entering a new stage in its evolution that remains largely uncertain.
Period6 Apr 2024
Event titleBASEES Annual Conference 2024
Event typeConference
LocationCambridge, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • disinformation
  • politics
  • media studies
  • linguistics