In March 2020, a freelance writer in Mexico City was browsing the internet at home when he saw an ad for a self-described “social media” company that was looking for writers to post messages online. The company didn’t appear to have a name. Instead, there was a WhatsApp number and an address for an account on an encrypted email service. “Fluent English is a must,” the ad emphasized.
The freelancer — I’ll call him Carlos — thought the whole thing seemed sketchy. But he was a recent college graduate navigating the job market during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. He needed the money. Posting to social media sounded like an easy work-from-home gig, so he applied.
After a short interview over video chat with a woman named Vera, Carlos got the job. The company called itself “Social CMS.” Vera, a Venezuelan national working in Mexico, sent him a contract with a physical address connected to a coworking space in Germany. She also put him in touch with one of her managers — a man called Tom, who never revealed his last name, and claimed to be based in Poland. Tom communicated with Carlos exclusively through WhatsApp. (Vera did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Carlos had some questions about Social CMS. He didn’t understand why the company didn’t have a web page, despite claiming to have a presence in three different countries. Nor did Carlos understand how the company intended to monetize the string of seemingly random messages about current events that he was being asked to post to Instagram.
“The goal is to make accounts growing,” Tom told him via WhatsApp. “Searching for content, posting, and improving it — that’s basically what this job is about.”
But Vera and Tom were just middle management. The real boss of Social CMS was a notorious Russian warlord, Yevgeny Prigozhin — the man who founded the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, that propagated pro-Trump and anti-Clinton memes in an attempt to influence the US presidential election in 2016. Over the years, Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, had used his personal military operation to prop up Putin-aligned leaders across Africa. Now, with Trump once again running for president, the Russian warlord had set up shop in Mexico, in the months leading up to another US election, in an attempt to spread divisive messages and build a horde of devoted online followers. [Continue reading…]