Paul Catmur: Russian trolls, disinformation, tips for your social media campaign


Russian President Vladimir Putin has long seen social media as a useful tool. Photo / Getty Images


We recently discovered Russia had been doing its best to inflame the anti-vaccine protesters in New Zealand. I’m not sure why they felt it necessary as we had plenty of our own
local disinformation (“designed right here in New Zealand, especially for Kiwi conditions!”) but the Russians are the best in the world at using social media for mischief, so why stop at US elections?

At a time when Kiwi marketing departments often struggle to get traction with their own social media campaigns, let’s see if there’s anything we could learn from the Russians.


The Russians originally set up the Internet Research Agency in a building in St Petersburg with a bunch of young people known locally as the “Trolls of Olgino”. Their favoured method is to set up multiple social media accounts supplied with fake personas, families, jobs, universities etc to make them seem legitimate.

Russian disinformation surged around the anti-mandate protests. Photo / NZME

One of them will post some inflammatory comment on a contentious issue, following which their mates down the corridor will pile in with messages of support, sharing the post and squashing any dissent. They don’t aim to persuade, merely to provoke.

Meanwhile, the average New Zealand social media campaign will have been entrusted to a lone intern based on their intimate knowledge of TikTok videos and propensity for following influencers on “Insta”. Definite room for improvement.

Quality of posts

The Russians have the whole apparatus of the state behind them, including their state news media who have decades of experience in putting together propaganda. There are paid actors ready to be filmed in any role required, and they create fake institutions, universities and news organisations where appropriate. They can also use pictures and film they find anywhere in the world. You think a country that invades other ones for fun is going to concern itself with copyright laws?

Meanwhile, our poor intern is limited to blurry iPhone pictures shot on the desk in reception.

Quantity of posts

The Russian’s aim is to bombard their opponents with a constant stream of flatulence known as “The Firehouse of Falsehood”. They can react swiftly and vitriolically to any feedback thanks to having trolls working in shifts around the clock with no need for sign off. Refuting the avalanche of false claims is tricky as summed up by Brandolinis Law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it.” Or to paraphrase Mark Twain: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

The USSR saw propaganda as being “war without the shooting”. Photo / Getty Images

Over in New Zealand, our campaign will have taken seven months to create in a process involving brand pyramids, consumer research, and a colour palette based on 19th-century Japanese watercolours. Next, the lawyers will spend a fortnight desperately looking for problems then hand it to the executive team for sign-off, before finally running it past the CEO’s spouse. Eventually, a solitary Facebook post will appear.

Should a member of the public dare to engage with our campaign and make a comment then our “instant” response will take a fortnight to be signed off using the same process. Of course, any interaction can only be handled during office hours, and everything grinds to a halt when the intern throws a sicky. Not ideal.

Media budget

We have a limited social media budget and no organic (unpaid) spread because let’s face it, there’s no way your sales message (“buy our product now!”) is remotely interesting compared to some of the other delights available online. Or so I’ve been told.

The Russians, however, barely need a media budget as the social media platforms will happily spread their messages around, the more extreme the better. Their algorithms will actively search out the impressionable and push them anything that is provocative and extremist because that’s what gets a reaction.

In conclusion

We shouldn’t feel too bad about our lack of success compared to the Russian trolls. After all, they actually invented disinformation, which derives from the Russian word “disinformatsiya”, itself supposedly coined by Stalin. This is a concept honed by the KGB during the Cold War when the USSR saw propaganda as being “war without the shooting”.

The Russians have used propaganda as a weapon since the Soviet Cold War days. Photo / Getty Images

The Russians don’t have to sell anything, their aim is to wind people up. They just want us to bicker so much among each other we forget about what’s actually important. This is not hard to do. Go to your local pub and announce loudly that the All Blacks are overpaid ballerinas and see how your evening goes. If the Russians really wanted to cause trouble, they’d target us on Sports Radio instead.

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Written by Sharecaster

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