You could easily mistake this particular Twitter user as a European Union citizen with a wide range of interests. He posts up to 60 times a day, in Dutch, German, English and Spanish. And he comments on rulings from the European Court of Human Rights as well as the Crimea crisis and the issue of Catalan. But there's still something a bit fishy about his account. He's constantly seeking to sow discord. He is sometimes belligerent, frequently twists facts and also targets Muslims and the EU while supporting Brexit and Trump. "The EU court is the new Nazi court," he recently wrote.
Even stranger than all this is the fact that, over the last four weeks, more than 800 accounts temporarily shared the same name as this single Twitter user – all very briefly. What was going on?
This game of tag jibes neatly with the strategies of Russian trolls. The supposed EU citizen appears to be a kind of virtual name tag that is simply passed along on the internet. Ultimately, though, the trail leads to St. Petersburg, to a troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). A few years ago, a number of accounts held by the IRA were exposed and blocked – and this user was linked conspicuously closely to some of them.
Nobody knows how many trolls there are or how many people they are able to deceive on the internet. But there's no denying their existence. And the upcoming European Parliament elections, to be held later this month, are on their radar.
For countries like Russia, the internet is like a gift that keeps on giving: It enables opinions and elections to be manipulated in other countries without having to fire a single shot, spend a lot of money or unnecessarily endanger any of your own people. It makes it possible to undermine and destabilize democracies from the comfort of a desk.
The Kremlin recognized that potential early on. Specialists with the Russian secret service agencies GRU and SWR even form policies on the basis of the data they capture. And then there are the trolls on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, controlled by opinion factories like the IRA in St. Petersburg. They foment conflict and fuel campaigns in Germany, Great Britain and the United States. The influence Moscow had on Donald Trump's election to the U.S. presidency in fall 2016 underscored just how successful these efforts can be.
In the grand game of geopolitics, the Russian government exploits this gray area between war and peace as an elegant way to expand its influence. But how did it all get started – and where? It is a search that must also look at the software the trolls have at their disposal. And on that search, the journey starts in a rather unexpected place.
The Perfect Curve
In the Spanish capital of Madrid, Javier Perez Dolset, a tall, soft-spoken 49-year-old, is sitting at a conference table and smiling as he recalls those two bars that could be moved up and down with a controller to hit a pixel ball back and forth. He was 6 years old, he says, when his father gave him a Pong console – and he's been obsessed with video games and programming ever since. "I was the biggest nerd in school," he says.
In 1998, when he was in his late 20s, he developed the successful video game "Commandos." Today, his empire includes the private U-tad technical university on the outskirts of Madrid, with a modern campus, complete with roads that are named after European cities, where students learn to program. His animation studio, which produces films for U.S. studios, is also located on campus. His passion for all things digital has been a constant throughout his life, even though it has also got Perez Dolset into trouble, including legal disputes and the loss of control over his most important company. It has also led to his entanglement in the digital conflict zone of troll wars.
The story begins around 2010, a time when Perez Dolset's company ZED had already been making a mint for years with mobile communications products like ring tones, music and games. But as the importance of social networks grew, Perez Dolset quickly recognized what it could mean for his clients – mobile operators who in turn had hundreds of thousands of customers of their own – if dissatisfied consumers were to join forces there to complain about products or services.
Perez Dolset decided to develop software that could serve as an early warning system to detect such brewing storms and neutralize the bad PR. He pumped millions of euros into the project – including funds from government loans, leading to subsequent claims that Perez Dolset misused those funds. By 2013, the project resulted in a program called the Social Networks Analysis Platform, or SNAP.