Investigation reveals troll factory with hundreds of Russians working in rotating shifts.

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Investigation reveals troll factory with hundreds working in rotating shifts.

Slaying online trolls can be a lonely business. Just ask Russia’s Lyudmila Savchuk, who first exposed the story of Russia’s disinformation campaign back in 2014.

The journalist and 33-year-old mother of two, Savchuk started noticing websites and social media accounts attacking local opposition activists in her hometown of Saint Petersburg with a frequency she hadn’t seen before.

The posts were all too similar. The verbal assaults too coordinated. So, when Savchuk later heard that an organization rumored to be behind the campaign — the Internet Research Agency or IRA — was hiring writers, she went for it.

“I wanted to get in there to see how it works, of course,” says Savchuk. “But the most important thing was to see if there was some way to stop it.”

She was hired as a blogger and told to report to Savushkina 55, a nondescript four-story office building on the outskirts of town.

There was a group dedicated to producing visual memes known as “demotivators.”

russian_hackers AP

Once on the inside, Savchuk was stunned to see hundreds of mostly younger Russians working as paid trolls in rotating shifts.

Roaming the halls when she could — cameras were everywhere — Savchuk discovered the IRA was full of different “departments.” There was the “news division,” the “social media seeders”, and a group dedicated to producing visual memes known as “ demotivators.”

Each worker had a quota to fill every day and every night.

Despite the division of labor, the content was remarkably uniform. The US, the EU, Ukraine’s pro-European government, and Russia’s opposition were regular targets for scorn. And then there was Russian President Vladimir Putin — seemingly no Russian triumph under his rule was too small to warrant a celebratory tweet, meme or post.

“Each worker has a quota to fill every day and every night,” Savchuk says. “Because the factory works around the clock. It never stops. Not for a second.”

At one point she pedaled pro-Kremlin talking points under the guise of a fortune teller.

putin.JPG Sputnik/Reuters

The work occasionally dipped into the absurd: at one point, Savchuk had to pretend to be a fortune teller named “Cantadora” — mixing blog musings on astrology, crystals, and rare gemstones with pro-Kremlin talking points. (One of Cantadora’s more accurate predictions was Vladimir Putin’s victory in Russia’s then-future 2018 presidential elections.)

This kind of soft-pedal trolling, Savchuk says, seemed to prove that the IRA was bent on reaching even the most marginal and apolitical of Russia’s expanding online audience.

In total, Savchuk spent just two and a half months at the IRA before she went public about the troll factory in a local newspaper.

The operation was run by a local restaurateur who was placed under US sanctions for attempting to interfere with US elections.

Evgeny Prigozhin.JPG
Evgeny Prigozhin, to the left of Vladimir Putin.
Reuters

Her conclusion: The troll farm was a Kremlin project, run by a shadowy local restaurateur named Evgeny Prigozhin.

While Prigozhin has denied those charges, his name may sound familiar to American audiences. Often called “Putin’s Chef” for his close ties to the Russian President, Prigozhin was placed under US sanctions in 2018 for what American officials say was a coordinated attempt to interfere with the US elections.

But that? That would all come later.

Even before the local troll exposé spread into a full-blown international scandal, Savchuk shifted to activism: lecturing on disinformation and trying to name and shame participants in the troll farm.

“I acted like any journalist would,” she says. “Only, then I went further. I realized an article wasn’t enough.”

She even sued the IRA in a Russian court in 2015 — winning a symbolic 1 ruble victory over the troll farm for labor code violations.

The court ruling brought the work of the Internet Research Agency “out of the shadows,” says Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer who represented Savchuk in the case.

“I can make comparisons to Al Capone. The US government couldn’t get him for being a gangster but they could get him for tax evasion,” he tells The World.

Meanwhile, Savchuk continued to publish her thoughts on countering disinformation to her main online outlet: her Facebook feed. And this is where Savchuk’s weird troll-slaying story takes an even weirder turn.

After returning home from a disinformation conference in Washington, DC, in November, Savchuk found her Facebook account inexplicably blocked.

Repeated attempts to restore her account and verify her identity with her passport went nowhere. Finally, in mid-February — boom. With no explanation, her profile was back.

Why this happened at all is still a mystery. Facebook did not respond to questions from The World about Savchuk’s access.

But Savchuk posits that IRA trolls may have flooded the platform with complaints about her account. Her problems with Facebook, she notes, started only after she talked openly about threats she’d received from people affiliated with Evgeny Prigozhin.

The possibility is not far-fetched. Last October, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigation claiming that people affiliated with Progizhin were behind attacks on opposition figures and bloggers.

Another possibility: Savchuk was swept up by a Facebook campaign to weed out fake Russian troll accounts. Company executives have touted those efforts amid increased congressional scrutiny after the 2016 election. And some western media outlets have mistakenly identified Savchuk as a “former troll.”

Either way, Savchuk feels burned by the experience. She says she thought her work against the IRA was helping Facebook understand how its platform could be gamed.

“When Facebook blocked me,” she says. “I couldn’t do that anymore.”

This “troll slayer” doesn’t regret the fight but is no longer convinced she could win.

Meanwhile, the stress and online isolation have taken a toll. Savchuk doesn’t hide that she had a breakdown since blowing the whistle on the IRA.

And while she doesn’t regret taking on the fight, this troll slayer — now 37 — is no longer convinced she can win.

Even though he was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team last year, “Putin’s Chef” is doing just fine, Savchuk notes.

A recent investigation into Prigozhin suggests his media empire and government contracts have grown exponentially since the IRA was cast out of the shadows.

Despite — or maybe because of — attention from the US, good things keep coming Prigozhin’s way.

Source: http://bit.ly/30Ah4Bc

End to Aids in sight as huge study finds drugs stop HIV transmission.

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End to Aids in sight as huge study finds drugs stop HIV transmission.

An end to the Aids epidemic could be in sight after a landmark study found men whose HIV infection was fully suppressed by antiretroviral drugs had no chance of infecting their partner.

The success of the medicine means that if everyone with HIV were fully treated, there would be no further infections.

Among nearly 1,000 male couples across Europe where one partner with HIV was receiving treatment to suppress the virus, there were no cases of transmission of the infection to the HIV-negative partner during sex without a condom. Although 15 men were infected with HIV during the eight-year study, DNA testing proved that was through sex with someone other than their partner who was not on treatment.

“It’s brilliant – fantastic. This very much puts this issue to bed,” said Prof Alison Rodger from University College London, the co-leader of the paper published in the Lancet medical journal. Earlier studies have also shown the treatment protects heterosexual couples where one partner has HIV.

She added: “Our findings provide conclusive evidence for gay men that the risk of HIV transmission with suppressive ART [antiretroviral therapy] is zero. Our findings support the message of the international U=U campaign that an undetectable viral load makes HIV untransmittable.

“This powerful message can help end the HIV pandemic by preventing HIV transmission, and tackling the stigma and discrimination that many people with HIV face.

“Increased efforts must now focus on wider dissemination of this powerful message and ensuring that all HIV-positive people have access to testing, effective treatment, adherence support and linkage to care to help maintain an undetectable viral load.”

In 2017, there were almost 40 million people worldwide living with HIV, of whom 21.7 million were on antiretroviral treatment. An estimated 101,600 people are living with HIV in the UK, and of these, about 7,800 are undiagnosed, so do not know they are HIV positive.

Myron S Cohen of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, said in a commentary in the Lancet on the study that it should push the world forward on a strategy to test and treat everyone who has HIV. But, he added, maximising the benefits of treatment, particularly for men who have sex with men, has proved difficult.

“It is not always easy for people to get tested for HIV or find access to care; in addition, fear, stigma, homophobia and other adverse social forces continue to compromise HIV treatment,” he said.

“Diagnosis of HIV infection is difficult in the early stages of infection when transmission is very efficient, and this limitation also compromises the treatment as prevention strategy.”

According to the National Aids Trust, 97% of people on HIV treatment in the UK have an undetectable level of the virus, meaning they cannot pass it on. “Hearing this can be enormously empowering and reassuring to people living with HIV,” said Deborah Gold, the trust’s chief executive.

The latest findings reinforce the importance of people taking HIV tests frequently, which could ultimately end the transmission of the virus altogether in the future. New diagnoses have been declining since their peak in 2005, with figures from 2017 showing a 17% drop on 2016 and a 28% fall compared with 2015.

Late diagnosis remains a major challenge, still accounting for about 43% of new HIV diagnoses. This disproportionately affects certain groups, including black African heterosexual men and people aged 65 and older.

“If we don’t reduce late diagnosis, there will always be those who are not aware of their HIV status and who therefore cannot access treatment,” said Gold. “We think that the findings from this study could be incredibly powerful in breaking down some of the barriers to testing in communities where there is still a lot of stigma around HIV.”

However, she added that government funding cuts to specialist health services would make it more difficult to achieve a goal of eliminating transmission by 2030.

Jens Lundgren, a professor of infectious diseases at Rigshospitalet, University of Copenhagen, and joint-lead for the study, called Partner, said: “We have now provided the conclusive scientific evidence for how treatment effectively prevents further sexual transmission of HIV.”

Dr Michael Brady, the medical director at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “It is impossible to overstate the importance of these findings.

“The Partner study has given us the confidence to say, without doubt, that people living with HIV who are on effective treatment cannot pass the virus on to their sexual partners. This has incredible impact on the lives of people living with HIV and is a powerful message to address HIV-related stigma.”

Bruce Richman, the founding executive director of the Prevention Access Campaign, which launched U=U, said Pac was tremendously grateful to the researchers and participants. He said the study “has for ever changed what it means to live and love with HIV around the world”.

In a linked comment in the journal, Cohen expressed optimism for future treatment of Aids. “During the course of these studies, antiretroviral drugs have become more effective, reliable, durable, easier to take, well tolerated and much less expensive,” he said.

“The results … provide yet one more catalyst for a universal test-and-treat strategy to provide the full benefits of antiretroviral drugs. This and other strategies continue to push us toward the end of Aids.”

Case study

Alex Sparrowhawk
Alex Sparrowhawk. Photograph: Handout

Alex Sparrowhawk, 34, has been living with HIV for almost 10 years. When he was diagnosed in November 2009, he had two major concerns: how being HIV positive would impact his work as a financial analyst, and what it meant for future relationships.

“I was single at the time,” he said. “Just navigating what to do – when to tell people and how to talk to people was really difficult.”

Alex immediately began antiretroviral treatment, initially taking four pills a day, which was reduced to one pill once his viral load came down to undetectable levels several months later. The latest results confirm that for the past nine years, he has not been able to transmit the virus to anyone, although at the time, medical advice was less definitive.

Between his diagnosis and now, Alex spent six-and-a-half years in a relationship, and said the possibility – however tiny – of transmitting HIV to his partner was a source of anxiety. “You’d be told it was very unlikely, or that it was only possible under certain circumstances like having an STI,” he said. “But you’re constantly worried about these caveats and you go through this worry together.

“Now we can say zero risk, which is just so much more empowering for people. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders.”

Alex hopes the findings will help transform public attitudes about HIV, bringing them in line with medical evidence. “A lot of stigma is driven by fear of being exposed to HIV,” he said. “People still think you can get it from kissing and casual contact. If more people knew about this study, this would change.”

Source: http://bit.ly/2VN9Xpm