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Prigozhin’s internet trolls blame West and defend Putin over Wagner chief’s death, researchers say

<i>PMC Wagner/Reuters</i><br/>Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in Russia on August 23.
PMC Wagner/Reuters
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in Russia on August 23.

By Katharina Krebs, CNN

(CNN) — A Russian network of internet trolls has begun to spread messages online blaming “enemies from the West” for the plane crash that killed Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin last week, according to two experts who monitor the activity of the trolls.

Prigozhin had previously turbo-charged the use of trolls to push messages designed to disrupt and polarize western societies. His St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency created hundreds of fake accounts on social networks aiming to meddle in other countries’ politics, leading the United States in 2018 to sanction Prigozhin for election meddling.

At that time, CNN obtained undercover video recorded inside the secretive Internet Research Agency, where internet provocateurs worked 12-hour shifts, aiming to distort political debate in the US.

It’s unclear whether the Internet Research Agency still exists, especially in the light of US sanctions and the short-lived mutiny led by Prigozhin at the end of June. But two groups of independent analysts – Bot Blocker and Chef’s Trap – have been analyzing several dozen Russian troll accounts on the social networks Vkontakte and X, formerly known as Twitter.

The creator of Bot Blocker told CNN, who does not reveal his identity for security reasons, said he was “extremely convinced” that Prigozhin and his structures had remained in charge of the troll accounts up until his death.

He told CNN the project analyzed more than 100 messages from several dozen troll accounts.

CNN has checked the accounts from a list shared by Bot Blocker, and noted apparent patterns of activity. All the accounts were created between March and June 2023, and all lacked personal posts except for a few reposts from just one account.

The accounts only comment on Russia-Ukraine related news posts and pro-Ukrainian channels, spreading exactly the same narratives.

They were united in spreading two themes: Putin had no motive to kill Prigozhin, as the two had already resolved the issues related to Prigozhin’s mutiny, and that his presumed death was the work of the West, which opposes Wagner influence in Africa.

According to Bot Blocker, the messages carrying these narratives started to appear on August 23 around 8 p.m. Moscow time, which coincides with the time pro-Wagner Telegram channels started sharing reports of Prigozhin’s death.

Officially, the list of passengers on board, which included Prigozhin’s surname, was published by the Russian authorities at 11 p.m. Moscow time on August 23.

Public posts available show these narratives are still being actively spread.

Trolls shift blame from Putin

Bot Blocker shared their data spreadsheets with CNN, which included recent messages from the accounts they described as belonging to trolls. According to Bot Blocker, the trolls spread their narratives through comments in various threads and posts which are related to relevant subjects. The project has analyzed the comments of accounts that mentioned “Prigozhin” or “airplane” from the time when the plane went down.

Referring to Prigozhin’s death, one post said: “We need to think about who benefits from this. It’s that same West, for which PMC Wagner in Africa was a threat.”

“It didn’t even make sense for Putin to kill Prigozhin, especially when their affairs were normal,” said another account, also replying in a thread where the idea of Putin being behind the plane crash was debated.

“I suppose the West deliberately staged a terrorist attack in order to pit the elites against each other inside Russia… Purely American method, already proven many times,” said another, replying to a news post on Prigozhin’s apparent death.

After Prigozhin’s apparent death, all the trolls’ references to Prigozhin are complimentary and positive. If the rebellion is mentioned, then it’s only as a long-exhausted issue,” Bot Blocker added.

According to the initial analysis from Bot Blocker, there were no changes in rhetoric after the official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death.

X did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

CNN also spoke to another agency, Chef’s Trap, that works to uncover and analyze the activities of Russian internet trolls on the Russian social media platform Vkontakte (also known as Vk.)

The watchdog group chose its name in reference to Prigozhin’s well-known nickname of “Putin’s Chef.”

“Mainly these messages are generally aimed at filling the information field with all sorts of conjectures and ideas, justifying the Kremlin in every possible way,” said the Chef’s Trap creator, who also asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

The Chef’s Trap creator also says they picked up similar trends when analyzing such posts on Vkontakte: Wagner’s activities in Africa were inconvenient to the West and therefore Western officials decided to remove him, and Putin had no reason to kill Prigozhin since they had already resolved their issues.

The project began its operations in 2019 and analyzes thousands of posts a day. It has developed an automated system that identifies allegedly fake accounts, along with messages determined to be from trolls.

Chef’s Trap uses similar techniques to identify the trolls as Bot Blocker, but each agency has their unique algorithms, which CNN cannot independently verify.

“You can see that these accounts are connected by activity in the same threads and the similarity of the narratives they promote,” the Chef’s Trap creator told CNN.

“Why would Putin kill Prigozhin? (Prigozhin) was Putin’s friend who always helped him with every request. Therefore it was not beneficial for Russia to lose such a person,” said one post.

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