Russian election-meddling ‘troll factory’ reportedly shut down after Wagner revolt
The future of Russia’s notorious Internet Research Agency, a "troll factory" that meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, is uncertain after its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin fled to Belarus following his attempted military coup.
Several Russian media outlets reported Friday that Prigozhin shut down his Saint Petersburg-based media holdings, including the troll factory, and is firing all of its employees. All media outlets and news agencies controlled by Prigozhin were blocked in Russia last week following his rebellion.
Earlier this week, Russian independent news source The Bell said that the IRA was looking for a new owner, while its operations were completely halted following the revolt. This was also reported by another independent Russian media outlet, Meduza. Both The Bell and Meduza are blocked and labeled as "foreign agents" in Russia.
According to their reports, Russian law enforcement conducted raids on all of Prigozhin's offices in Saint Petersburg, and confiscated the equipment present there immediately after Wagner mercenary troops — led by Prigozhin — took control of a Russian military base and started moving in a convoy towards Moscow last week.
Several Russian media outlets now report that employees of Prigozhin’s media empire will be fired without receiving any compensation, and the companies will subsequently be shut down. Representatives from Prigozhin's media group could not be reached for comment.
Prigozhin’s media empire
The IRA gained international attention in 2016 for its online propaganda and influence operations on behalf of Russian business and political interests. In 2018, the organization was indicted by the U.S. for interfering in the country’s 2016 presidential election by spreading disinformation on social media using fake accounts and bots.
Prigozhin, who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018, initially denied any ties to the IRA but admitted earlier this year that he founded and financed the company. "It was created to protect the Russian information space from the West's boorish and aggressive anti-Russian propaganda," Prigozhin said.
Apart from the IRA, he also had control over several Russian media outlets. Sources at Prigozhin's troll factory and media outlets in Saint Petersburg told The Bell and Meduza that when Wagner's troops captured the Russian city of Rostov last week, most of the employees did not show up for work. The company’s operations were soon paralyzed, as Russian law enforcement seized IRA’a servers.
IRA’a potential new owner
When Prigozhin became fully engaged with Wagner's operation during the war in Ukraine, his media empire was put under the control of Ilya Gorbunov, who had previously worked for various Russian media outlets.
Gorbunov was in negotiations with potential buyers of Prigozhin’s assets earlier this week but then suddenly disappeared, The Bell reported.
Sources familiar with Prigozhin's media companies believe that Yuri Kovalchuk, the billionaire banker and the owner of Russia’s National Media Group (NMG), would be a top candidate to take over the IRA and Prigozhin’s other media outlets if they were sold.
Kovalchuk previously bought the Delovoy Peterburg newspaper through intermediaries and recognized it as an NMG asset only three years after the purchase of the publication.
The Bell reported that — if they remain in operation — the IRA and related media sites will likely be supervised by the Kremlin, regardless of who its new owner is.
Daryna Antoniuk is a freelance reporter for Recorded Future News based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyberwar between Ukraine and Russia. She previously was a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published at Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.