Russia’s Covert Troll Farms Are Failing: Meta Report

Russia’s army of online trolls seemed powerful after claims they may have helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. But nearly eight years later, that troll army is struggling in the trenches of Russia’s war on Ukraine as it tries — and fails — to trick the world into buying the Kremlin’s talking points about the invasion.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by Facebook parent company Meta released on Wednesday. The Meta researchers say that over the past few years, they’ve seen “a consistent decline in the overall followings” of covert influence operations identified by the company. 

Since his tanks rolled into Ukraine two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put the war at the forefront of his covert influence campaigns. But a lot has changed since the days when the Internet Research Agency, at the direction of Kremlin officials, promoted hacked Hillary Clinton campaign emails and sowed division along America’s cultural fault lines in the 2016 presidential election — including through paid Facebook ads. In the years that followed, and especially since the start of the latest war in Ukraine, Russia’s trolls have witnessed a decline in audiences, highlighting both the Kremlin’s continuing struggles in the conflict and and the resilience of Western civil society. 

The report found that, since the start of the war, Russian troll operators have moved away from their previous, more labor-intensive tactics, which involved efforts to build up fleshed-out backstories for their fake personas. Instead, researchers saw Moscow’s troll farms shift to cranking out masses of “thinly-disguised, short-lived fake accounts,” in the hopes that one of them will get lucky and “stick” within the public consciousness. 

Few, if any, were so lucky. 

While Russian trolls have tried to create more accounts, pages, and groups on average than in previous years, the number of followers for them has actually fallen dramatically, according to Meta. That same decline is evident for Russia’s overt, state-backed propaganda outlets, which suffered “sustained lower levels of activity and engagement globally” the social media company concluded. 

For those that remained, the numbers have been grim. In the past year, the volume of posts from Russian government propaganda outlets on Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram has declined 55 percent while the audience for them dropped by a startling 94 percent, continuing a decline seen in the first year of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Across a broad array of troll accounts and campaigns, Russian covert influence operations have largely stuck to a handful of key subjects when talking about Ukraine, suggesting more central direction from their employers. Meta researchers identified a number of consistent narratives pushed by the shadowy sock puppets. Key talking points have included bogus claims about U.S.-backed Ukrainian “bioweapons” labs, efforts to paint Ukraine as arming terrorist groups and stoke conflict between Kyiv and neighboring states, like Poland. 

At the outset of Russia’s war on Ukraine, a number of European countries sanctioned or outright banned Russian government propaganda outlets like RT, Sputnik, and others, while in the U.S., RT America laid off its staff and closed its doors. 

But Meta has also sought to limit the reach of remaining Russian official propaganda outlets with a series of “nudges” designed to limit the visibility of such posts, like bans on ads and labels identifying Russian government-linked accounts.

Meta researchers also reported that they were able to solve a year-long mystery involving one of Russia’s longest-running covert troll campaigns, Secondary Infektion. The operation dates back to 2014 and has targeted dozens of countries in a host of languages, often using a mixture of forged official documents and screenshots to push pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives.


The group gained notoriety in the West when researchers linked it to a 2019 hack-and-leak operation aimed at disrupting the British general election.

Even with their high volume of posts and track record dating back years, the identities of those behind the activity has been a mystery until now. In their latest report, Meta researchers say they’ve solved at least part of that puzzle and attributed the group to “individuals associated with the Russian state.”