ST. PETERSBURG, Russia ó While Russian officials scoff at a U.S. indictment charging 13 Russians with meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, several people who worked at the same St. Petersburg, Russia, "troll factory" say they think special counsel Robert Muellerís criminal charges are well-founded.
Marat Mindiyarov, a former commenter at the innocuously named Internet Research Agency, says the organizationís Facebook department hired people with excellent English skills to sway U.S. public opinion through an elaborate social media campaign.
His own experience at the agency makes him trust the U.S. indictment, Mindiyarov told the Associated Press. "I believe that thatís how it was and that it was them," he said.
The federal indictment issued Friday names a businessman linked to President Vladimir Putin and a dozen other Russians. It alleges that Yev≠geny Prigozhin ó a wealthy restaurateur dubbed "Putinís chef" ó paid for the Internet operation that created fictitious social media accounts and used them to spread tendentious messages.
The aim of the factoryís work was either to influence voters or to undermine their faith in the U.S. political system, the 37-page indictment states.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that while the indictment focuses on "Russian nationals," it gives "no indication that the Russian government was involved in this in any way." Peskov reasserted that Moscow did not interfere in the U.S. election.
Mindiyarov failed the language exam needed to get a job on the Internet Research Agencyís Facebook desk, where the pay was double that of the domestic side of the factory. The sleek operation produced content that looked as if it were written by native English speakers, he said.
"These were people with excellent language skills, interpreters, university graduates," he said. "Itís very hard to tell itís a foreigner writing because they master the language wonderfully."
The English test he took asked for a writing sample about Democratic candidate Hillary Clintonís chances of winning the U.S. presidential vote, Mindiyarov recalled.
"I wrote that her chances were high and she could become the first female president," he told the AP.
Mindiyarov said he took a job at the troll factory in late 2014 because he was unemployed and curious. At the time, about 400 people occupied four floors of an office building and worked 12-hour shifts, he said. Most of the operation focused on the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, not political races in the West, he said.
The trolls received their wages in cash and operated in teams as they tried to foment public interest with fake discussions, according to Mindiyarov.
After only a couple of months, Mindiyarov quit in 2015. He says he hated the work.
"The world in those comments was divided into black and white: America was bad, Putin was good," he said. "They praised whatever had to do with Putin and criticized anything related to America, Ďgayí Europe, and so on. That was the principle of the work."
Along with producing social media supporting Donald Trumpís candidacy and disparaging Clinton, the Internet Research Agency purchased online advertisements using identities stolen from Americans and staged political rallies while posing as American political activists, the indictment alleges. The agency also paid people in the U.S. to promote or ridicule the candidates, the document states.
"All of the trolls knew that itís Prigozhin who stands behind this all," Mindiyarov said. "But nobody had any evidence."
He said that the employees disliked Prigozhin, in part because he didnít set up a cafeteria or canteen in the troll factory building even though he owned a sprawling catering business.
"People had to bring food boxes from home," Mindiyarov said. "Prigozhin did not treat the trolls well. He could at least feed them."
While the U.S. indictment mentioned 13 people, many more must have been involved in the effort, said Lyudmila Savchuk, another former worker at the St. Petersburg workshop.
"Here they laugh about the news that 13 people could influence the elections in the U.S., but there were many more people doing that," she said. "These technologies are unbelievably effective."
She added that she learned how effective the troll farmís work was when she saw regular people sharing opinions and information that she knew were planted by trolls.
"They believed it was their own thoughts, but I saw that those thoughts were formed by the propagandists," she said.