Kremlin Playbook Spotlight: A Washington Think-Tank Event and a Russian Troll
October 9, 2018
Contributor: Heather A. ConleyOn June 25, 2018, CSIS hosted European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for a public discussion of the transatlantic relationship immediately following his meeting with President Trump. But President Juncker was not the only featured voice during the live event. As the event started live streaming on the CSIS YouTube channel, the user “Maria Shick” began posting provocative comments on the live chat. Throughout the livestream, the user posted aggressive, Islamophobic content such as “How's those Muslims working out in Europe? You do know a migrant just killed his German wife and chopped off the head of their child?” Before “Maria” entered the live chat, the conversation focused on President Juncker’s ongoing remarks which heavily emphasized transatlantic trade. Other remarks by “Maria” included “God Bless Victor Orban” (the Hungarian Prime Minister who is strongly opposed to European immigration and espouses preferences for illiberalism), “How many innocent Hungarians have been killed by Muslims in Hungary?” and “The liberal left democracies are collapsing all across the western world because of immigration so you Progressives and Liberals should just lay back and enjoy it.”
After careful analysis, CSIS concluded that “Maria Shick” is likely a Russian troll. The user name “Maria Shick” appears to be a play on the name Maria Schicklegrüber, who was the grandmother of Adolf Hitler. The account contained no information other than what appeared to be a stock photo. Examination of its activity revealed that it had been posting anti-immigration and anti-NATO comments across social media platforms since at least 2014, the year that Russia illegally annexed Crimea and began its military incursions in eastern Ukraine.
While these accounts typically show nothing that explicitly ties them to Russia (making it difficult to prove where their activity originates), they tend to share certain common traits. They usually have very few followers on social media but are very active in voicing talking points consistent with the Kremlin’s agenda, which includes fueling xenophobic sentiment and portraying the West as being in a state of chaos, making it a less attractive model either to emulate or join.
This troll intervention also serves as an example of how Russian trolls attempt to shift the public debate through their online behavior. Rather than focusing on the positive discussion on the future prospects of transatlantic trade, the troll’s insertion into the dialogue could have easily sent the live chat discussion into very divisive territory among the other participants in the live chat, which is by design—the aim is to sow societal division and discord over sensitive topics.
This is just one brief snapshot of how malign Russian influence can alter public discourse and amplify divisions in democratic societies.