Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): Full Frontal producers talk interviewing actual Russian internet trolls
With less than a year on the air, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has managed to take the small screen by storm. Through Bee’s energetic and acerbic takes on the week’s news, and with her expert team of producers, writers, and editors, Full Frontal found humor and empathy in some of the toughest issues in the 2016 election cycle. From traveling to Syria to meet with refugees, to uncovering the many attacks on women’s rights and healthcare, to interviewing President Barack Obama in October, the show has solidified itself as an important part of the ever-growing late-night conversation.
One of Full Frontal’s most fascinating segments this year came from a visit to Russia in the fall. “We were thinking about doing a piece on internet trolls in America months before,” says field producer Razan Ghalayini, “but since we were going to Russia, Miles [Kahn, executive producer] suggested we try to get two pieces out of the trip. I thought, I know we can talk to trolls in Russia because I have contacts in the journalism world who were telling me there were definitely people tweeting pro-Trump stuff that they believed were Russian trolls.”
Sure enough, they found them: a Russian man and woman, confirmed by the Full Frontal staff and their contacts to indeed be employed as internet trolls, agreed to appear on the show wearing black masks while describing their jobs and their ideology to Bee (see the video above).
What were they like in person? What’s with the ski masks? And the ultimate question: Could they be trolling Full Frontal, too? Below, Kahn and Ghalayini, both producers on this segment, break down their experiences in Russia, what they learned about industrialized internet trolling, and how they managed to make this story work on a comedy show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with your pitch. Once you were able to pinpoint two people who were paid internet trolls, how did you convince them to appear on camera?
RAZAN GHALAYINI: I think a huge part of understanding this is that they’re not ashamed of what they do. A lot of people that are doing something we might disagree with are proud of what they are doing. If you listen to the woman troll, she doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. There was nothing to convince her of because she thinks we’re as wrong as we think she is.
We certainly never lied to them or told them we would misrepresent them, or do anything bad. It was very much like, ”Hey, we’d like to hear what you have to say, because we’ve just been hearing what we have to say about what you have to say.”
MILES KAHN: I also think there’s an element, especially with people who go online to try and get reactions from people, that they want their work to be shared, and they want to take credit for it, even though they can’t really do that because they’re using pseudonyms. So there is an element of being able to brag about their work, and perhaps getting a little bit of credit for what they do.
I just assumed because of the masks that they didn’t want to necessarily identify with what they were discussing. So if not by shame, how did the masks come into play?
GHALAYINI: I would say the masks weren’t a shame thing as much as a security thing. They are feared by people, and they didn’t want to be identified, and I think actually even in our interviews, they say, “We’re not hiding our face,” or “I’m not hiding my face because I’m afraid, I’m hiding my face because if I want to travel, it might block me from getting a visa in the future.” One of them was like, “I don’t want my parents or my family to know because I’m never going to hear the end of it.”
KAHN: [Laughs]So maybe a little bit of shame. A little bit of shame, and a little bit of fear, to be honest. They’re being paid by people who are high up on the food chain, and they wouldn’t tell us who that was, but we had some ideas who those people might be. They weren’t willing to reveal where their paychecks were actually coming from, but they did tell us how much they made, and it’s sort of a regular job for them. From The New York Times Magazine article “The Agency,” we know that [internet trolls] have sort of a brick and mortar office to go to. Our people were freelancers who work from home, but I would assume there are at least hundreds of others.
Can you tell me how much they made?
KAHN: That we can: It was in Bitcoin and about $3,000 a month.
GHALAYINI: And we didn’t put this in the piece, but they both said this: They received their instructions from their employer in an encrypted chat room. They have usernames so they don’t know who’s in it with them, and then they get a target. So whoever is hiring them will say, “Here’s an article about this,” or, “Here’s a subject I want you to talk about, go forth and do it,” and they go and troll. And what ends up happening, at least according to the male troll, is when things go viral they get more money. So there’s like a bonus incentive, too, to make your stuff kind of explode on Reddit or 4chan, or Twitter or Facebook, or wherever they’re posting. So it’s a highly organized situation.
What were they like off-camera?
GHALAYINI: They were really, really friendly and nice. They were curious and interested in what we were doing. I can’t speak for Sam, but I know all of us, including Sam, were really interested in talking with them. It really was super friendly. I think that they respectfully told us that they disagreed with almost everything we were saying, and we respectfully told them that we disagreed with everything they were saying.
KAHN: It was definitely never a contentious interview. There was frankly a lot of laughter, and they were genuinely very nice people.
Did you talk about any other international issues they might be trolling online or was the U.S. presidential election their only interest?
GHALAYINI: We do know that our two trolls in their cell have definitely put out a lot of disinformation or misinformation about like, the Syrian war, and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war. We also know that they’ve done a lot of work around the Ukraine, and the invasion of the Ukraine and the situation in Crimea. Those are two examples that they gave us in our recorded interview that they said they had actually commented on. I don’t think it’s just elections; I think it’s any opportunity that might enhance the image of Russia’s strength.
KAHN: We followed this piece up with another segment about Russia’s propaganda and their media. And this is, in a way, an arm of their propaganda unit. It’s a little more underground. They might be online in a strange way on Twitter or Facebook spreading lies, but as we showed in our second piece on Russia, they’re also on their nightly news. It’s not just Twitter there. It really is an assault on complete freedom of press and misinformation, and false leads, and propaganda, and they’re very good at it.
Is there any chance they could have been trolling you in all of this? Did you consider that maybe they were lying about everything they told you?
GHALAYINI: [Laughs] We went into it thinking, you know, there’s a huge chance they’re trolling us.
KAHN: But that, in a sense, means that they’re still trolls! Like if they’re lying to us from this, then they’re trolls anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
GHALAYINI: We do know that they are trolls and are paid by a Russian government affiliate; we did our homework in that way. We just can’t give up the name of our source. But until we got there and saw the documentation and talked to the people, we thought, “Oh my god, they could totally be f—ing with us,” and Sam was like, “Well, if they f— with us, then that’s the story.”
KAHN: It’s worth noting too that before we left, we talked to a bunch of different experts on-camera for the other piece on Russian media that told us, “When you leave, they’re going to write a story about you, and they’re going to lie about what you were doing.” And that’s exactly what they did. They did a story on us in Russia; they interviewed one of the trolls we interviewed, and they said, “Oh, we found their troll!” Well, how did they find the troll? He was wearing a mask, so they never explained how they found them. The only way they could have found him, in my opinion, is if they knew who he was. The only way they would have known who he was was probably if they were following us. So I don’t know, I watched their story, and they said that we hired them as actors and we gave them a script, and that’s just false. We stand by our reporting, our research, and refute any claims that we hired actors or scripted any portion of the interview. But ultimately, we did two pieces there — we did a piece about internet trolls and we did a piece about propaganda, and they proved both of those things true to me in one news report.
Any final thoughts on how you felt both segments about Russia came out?
KAHN: I am so proud of these pieces, in part because of the timing. The guy who originally pitched this for us just to go Russia either has great luck or foresight or both, because this became a bigger story that nobody was really tracking [at the time]. No other American journalists in Russia covering this story about propaganda, about how Trump is received over there, about media, about trolls. We’re a comedy show; we don’t have the resources of a major news organization, but I was really proud of what we were able to pull together just based on some of our resources. We talked to some really, fascinating people — not just the trolls, but journalists and TV presenters, people who are very pro-Kremlin. And the warning couldn’t be any clearer about what an autocratic society is and how quickly you can go from a democracy to an autocratic society. For me, it was a sharp warning about where we can go if we don’t watch ourselves. And then comedy happened, somehow.
How did you manage to insert anything funny into this? Somehow you were able to find humor in it.
KAHN: It’s Sam’s talent, it’s the talent of our writers, and our producers and our editors. You’re always looking for a way in our show to do something entertaining, or maybe make your point in a different way. We can make our point unironically or non-sarcastically and we would be straight news. We just find ways to do the same thing and try to craft some sort of take that’s unexpected. Sam is a big part of it. Sam just frankly makes everything awesome.
GHALAYINI: She’s so funny, and she just finds a way to take things that are sort of dark, or hard, and inject joy in them. She finds comedy around these joyful moments of understanding, and it’s really cool the way she’s able to do it, and I think she encourages all of us to do the same.
KAHN: We’ve kind of grown to have this mantra around here to “not punch down at the little person, but to punch up at power,” and I think you get better and more satisfying comedy if you’re trying to talk to power and make fun of the authority. So we offered those trolls respect when we sat down with them. We didn’t belittle them. We gave them a platform to talk, and that gave us room to make jokes — sometimes about them, sometimes with them, but we never took them out of context, and so I was really proud of that.
See an additional web-only segment from Full Frontal’s coverage in Russia here.