Credits: Alexia Barakou

BY KATARZYNA PRUSZKIEWICZ
WOJCIECH CIESLA
KONRAD SZCZYGIEL

1 November 2019

We all have heard about troll farms. However, much of the reporting about bots and trolls is just speculation. To find out what is really involved, our reporter went undercover to work as a troll for six-months at a troll farm in Wroclaw. This report gives insights about a commercial company that turned the spreading of hate and propaganda into their business model. 

January 2019: An old communist office block in suburban Wrocław. Agents of Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) are carrying out binders from a small room on the third floor. Two desks, a coat rack and a filing cabinet are squeezed into the room. The agents have just raided the headquarters of the company that months later we will expose as a troll farm: Cat@Net.

Back then, only two brief media reports were published about the raid. However, both contained one detail that sparked the interest of our reporters: the probe into Cat@Net is linked to the detention of Bartłomiej Misiewicz, a close aid to the Polish defence minister, who has been arrested for alleged corruption within the Polish armament group Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ).  PGZ is one of Europe‘s biggest defence groups with over 50 entities and 18,000 employees.

Misiewicz, a young man of 29, was – until his arrest – an activist for the conservative ruling party, the Law and Justice party (PiS), and a member of the supervisory boards of several state-controlled companies. He got the job – without even having a university diploma or a military background – thanks to his friends at the defence ministry.

As this was happening the team at Investigate Europe were looking into disinformation campaigns. A source gave us the tip-off that: “Cat@Net is a classic troll farm.” The source claimed that the company ran hundreds of fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and that they were working for Poland‘s public television, politicians and the arms industry. But wasn’t all: the source also told us that the dissemination of disinformation via Cat@Net was state funded. Because the company employed disabled people it received subsidies from the National Disabled Persons Rehabilitation Funds.

A troll farm, Cat@Net, Misiewicz, public television, state money? We decide to take a closer look.

March 2019: While researching Cat@Net we come across a job posting from the company advertising for the post of  ‘telecommuter’ – a person to work from home – preferably a university student or graduate with journalistic experience. The job would involve: “Building a positive image of our customers on social media and on the internet.”  Those customers include “large and small companies (…) as well as other entities, including public administration institutions and private individuals.” Katarczyna Pruszkiewicz had a ‘clean’ online record (she has no profile as an investigative journalist) so, supported and coached by the teams at Fundacja Reporterow and Investigate Europe, she applied.

Katarczyna remembers her first months:  “I reply to the job posting and wait. Three weeks later I get a phone call from an unknown number. A female voice invites me for an interview.  We meet in a cafe at one of Warsaw‘s shopping centres. I meet two women from Cat@Net. It was the younger one, Alicja, who had replied to my email. They ask me about current political developments to check if I follow the daily news.

“They do not reveal the clients of Cat@Net, at least not for now. I nod my head to confirm I understand the need for discretion, which is part of their policy after all. Two days later Alicja calls me to congratulate and says she‘s offering me a three-month trial period. I learn that if I‘m doing well I may get promoted.

I start my work in April. I meet with Alicja to sign a contract. As my first assignment I create a Twitter account to share ‘social and political’ content. I‘m told to create a ‘credible and convincing’ (fake) profile and identity. I become a right-wing patriot with a Polish flag in my bio profile. Alicja instructs me to make my account as credible as possible – apart from writing about social and political issues I have to offer some insight into my life as an imaginary person. Since my bio says I am a student I post a photo of the university. After I‘ve cooked something, I brag about it online. New nail polish? I add a pic. Those details help make my account seem authentic.

“I get more advice by the Cat@Net team: my posts need to be controversial and popular. April is the time of a nationwide teachers’ strike in Poland; they demand higher pay. The ruling party and their public radio and TV propaganda portray teachers as parasites, losers and sly dogs. My fictitious account chooses the #notsupportingteachersstrike hashtag. I write that teachers are holding students hostage; they are selfish and that their demands are unjustified.

“In the coming weeks I lash out at the LGBT movement. I say that I fell asleep while watching ‘Tell No One’ a documentary about child sex abuse in Poland’s Roman Catholic Church.

“Two men kissing on Eurovision? That‘s outrageous! How can you expose children to such content?

Pride parade? – more like #PervertsParade

I post pictures of flowers, my cat, my favourite chocolate. After all, my life is not only politics.

This is what my first three months look like.”

June 2019: Katarzyna has become a trustworthy troll and is invited to a private Cat@Net Slack channel called ‘Kulawa Rebelia’, which translates as ‘Lame Rebellion’ or ‘Rebellion on Crutches.’ Every day people with different degrees of disability, including those using wheelchairs, meet here and talk. This chat group is in fact the company’s engine room. All internet operations are controlled by two managers who send trolls to react under specific posts or on specific Twitter accounts. The managers decide what to write and publish.

We get hold of a current list of Cat@Net troll accounts. There are at least 179 of them: 70 on Facebook, 94 on Twitter, 11 on Instagram and three more on YouTube. They are all run by just 14 people. But the low number of employees is misleading, it is actually a powerful army as many accounts have thousands of followers and some posts are viewed tens of thousands times. The accounts are either left-wing or right-wing and are set in motion depending on what happens in Poland. They are supposed to agitate either the Polish left, or the right, and therefore appear credible – a typical disinformation technique.

“Every day we take shifts to browse the web for the topics we have been asked to follow. Sometimes we receive posts from a copywriter that we just have to paste into our accounts. In the internal chat we share posts we have been working on and ask our colleagues for comment. Very often we are sent out to start fake discussions – when we, the trolls, share messages between our accounts third-party users join the conversation and it becomes real: the debate develops and creates traffic.

“In the chat the trolls brag about their most popular posts and how many users they have reached. When a politician replies to the post of a fake account the internal chat quickly overflows with words expressing praise.

One of the first large clients of Cat@Net was Polish public television TVP. Trolls started working for TVP in September 2017. An analysis by the London-based think tank ISD Global – commissioned by Fundacja Reporterow and Investigate Europe – shows the influence these 14 employees have via their online troll army: according to ISD Global, the trolls have published more than 10,000 posts about TVP in just under two years with up to 15 million views of these posts. TVPolakow_1,a very aggressive Twitter account run by the troll manager Alicja herself got 127,700 views; its tweets reached 446,000 users.

Katarzyna also has to cheer for the new client:

“My fictitious account on culture – so the assignment is clear – is a supporter of Polish public TV (TVP). During the week we receive TVP-related links to comment. We then have to copy and paste our comments into an Excel file. It contains the name of our avatar and our comments. At the end of the month a report on all activities is created, one that summarises our activities.

Cat@Net accounts work for TVP until spring 2019. The content? All sorts of support for TVP and smear campaigns against its critics. When the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza quotes a scientific report that is negative for TVP and has been hidden by the authorities they are instructed to attack the credibility of the paper.

“A farm manager divides tasks between us trolls. He writes: ‘The agency asks to share the post with your comments and add further comments below taking into consideration the following arguments:

  • these are conspiracy theories made by a collapsing newspaper;
  • they are looking for a scandal in relation to a report nobody has seen;
  • you can easily manipulate people while talking about something they have not seen and cannot relate to;
  • maybe a similar report should be prepared about this gutter press?

“The manager is well aware that we have to cover up the actions so he sends a warning: ‘But please do not copy my arguments, come up with your own ideas based on what I have written. This is the assignment for the right-wing accounts mostly.’ The comments are to be published on Twitter, and not directly under the article in question.

We trolls are confused because the article is behind a paywall. We can‘t see what we have to comment about. The manager decides: ‘Rely on what I have written. Your posts should mean the same, but use different words..”

When confronted with the results of this investigation TVP denied having worked with Cat@Net. While they may not have worked directly with TVP we were able to prove that they used an intermediary: they have several contracts with a marketing agency called AM Art-Media PR. The chairman of AM Art-Media PR, Ignacy Krasicki, claims he remembers that he had commissioned Cat@Net for “media monitoring operations“. The cooperation lasted for several months he says and that he is not able to exactly say when it started.

September 2019: Katarzyna tells her bosses that she is tired of her simple trolling tasks. She gets a promotion. Now a manager herself she supervises a group of trolls. She also works with copy writers that pre-formulate opinions and comments.

“As a manager, I have to collect all comments in one Excel file and send reports to my superiors on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. By reporting the activities of troll accounts I have to show them that the tasks commissioned are being implemented.”

Cat@Net writes very straightforward reports for its clients. In March, the ‘Lame Rebellion’ launched an offensive aimed at defending TVP against claims of online attacks by a former employee. Katarzyna got hold of one of the client reports: it lists the activities for TVP. In February it showed that 725 posts were published (97 by TVPolakow_1, the manager troll, and 628 by others). Cat@Net reports proudly how it mocked the alleged victim: “The operation was launched from over 60 accounts.”

But the company does not only have right-wing clients – they work as well for ‘the other side’. On May 10, the company was ordered to suspend activities in favour of TVP until further notice. From now on the troll farm focused on the Twitter account of the deputy head of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Andrzej Szejna. He is a successful lawyer and election candidate.

His campaign is supported mainly by the “leftist“ accounts at Cat@Net. They praise and cheer all his tweets and posts. A new dedicated chat channel is created at the farm, called “leftist accounts” where the trolls share their comments. But that’s not all: the farm also activates right-wing accounts – intended to respond to the left-wing posts. The aim is to create traffic so that people believe Szejna is a popular candidate. We do some fact-checking, and it turns out that most tweets about Szejna have been created by trolls. Although he was mainly unknown before – through the actions of Cat@Net – analysis by ISD Global suggests that his posts could have had up to one million views.

“From time to time, trolls talk with each other. Support for Szejna in social networking sites is too artificial. During an internal discussion, one of the employees warns: ‘If Szejna is followed only by our accounts, this is really suspicious.’”

October 13: Szejna is elected as a member of the Polish Parliament. When we checked the documents at the National Electoral Commission, which keeps financial statements of all parties, there is no record of expenditure for the Cat@Net campaign. Undeclared payments are illegal under Polish law. When we confronted him with our findings, Szejna claimed not to know about Cat@Net. He said his Twitter account is led by a ‘former president of a powerful arms factory’. What did he pay for the campaign? “It was free” says Szejna “I did not invest anything in my online campaign.” Later on he gives us the name of the ‘former president’: it’s Krzysztof Krystowski.

This supports our findings: in an internal chat we learn that the company is apparently co-controlled by a well-known former-politician: Krzysztof Krystowski. The former head of the Social Democratic Labor Union is referred to as “president” by the Cat@Net employees in the chats. Since the right-wing PiS government came to power in 2015, Krystowski worked for several years as vice president for the helicopter division of arms company Leonardo. Another link between Cat@Net and the armament sector.

The ‘Lame Rebellion’, apart from right-wing and left-wing accounts, also maintains accounts purported to be set up by military experts. When an anonymous client provides instructions, the accounts promote Italian Leonardo helicopters; writing about their advantages and possible benefits they might bring to the Polish army.

Krystowski says he has – as a marketing expert – helped Szejna “a bit” and did some consulting work for the manager of Cat@Net, because this guy is “a friend”.  Nothing more.

October 2019: After six months as an employee of the troll farm Katarzyna hands-in her resignation. We have gathered enough material. Katarzyna is ready to drop her cover and write the story. We confront all parties involved.

When we emailed the Cat@Net CEO and asked him about troll profiles and his connection to Bartłomiej Misiewicz (who was suspected of corruption) we do not get an answer. But a few hours later the internal chat groups of employees are deleted.


Update
When Investigate Europe and Fundacja Reporterów published this research a few days ago with Newsweek Poland, Cat@Net removed almost all the content from its website.

They have since published (1 November) a statement – released in response to our publications – in which Cat@Net denies being a troll farm, describing their business as the outsourcing of marketing activities and stating that they adhere to the same rules as other agencies of this kind. They “strongly deny that the influencer accounts kept by the company’s employees use hate, hate speech or misinformation.” You can read their statement in full on their website:http://catatnet.pl/o-nas/

The National Fund for the Rehablitation of Disabled people opened an investigation on payments to Cat@Net – €350,000 since 2015.

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