Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin faces disgrace after his failed mutiny on June 23-24. As a result, he is rushing to dispose of his assets, including the Patriot media group — which encompasses the Internet Research Agency, widely known as a "troll factory.”
Hunt for trolls
Prigozhin owns multiple news outlets under Patriot’s umbrella, the largest of which is the RIA Federal News Agency (FAN). But following Prigozhin's mutiny, all of the publications associated with Patriot were blocked in Russia.
Employees at Prigozhin’s troll factory were hired to spread pro-government comments on social media. They also attempted to influence elections in the West by supporting candidates deemed favorable to Russia. For example, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Prigozhin’s trolls used Facebook to organize rallies in the U.S. and promoted "urgent social issues" on Twitter — interference that initially led to Prigozhin being sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018.
After Wagner fighters captured the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia on June 24, most of Prigozhin's "trolls" and journalists failed to show up for work, according to a source from the Patriot holding who spoke to The Bell. The business center in St. Petersburg — where Prigozhin's media outlets and troll factory are located — was searched by law enforcement. The source said: "They broke down a door but didn't turn everything upside down. If we can retrieve the servers, we can resume work immediately."
At the time of Prigozhin's revolt, his media activities were overseen by Ilya Gorbunov. Prior to assuming this role, Gorbynov worked for other Russian propaganda outlets. "Nobody knows where he is now," a source at FAN told The Bell.
"If I can't have you, nobody can."
Gorbunov was supposedly in discussions with potential new owners of Patriot. Sources said the National Media Group — owned by Yury Kovalchuk — was a potential buyer. However, it appears that the deal won't go through. On June 30, the heads of departments at Patriot and Prigozhin's troll factories instructed staff to submit resignation letters as the media's operations were coming to an end, according to two sources at Patriot.
Employees who spoke to The Bell claimed that "Prigozhin himself" announced the termination of work at Patriot during a meeting in St. Petersburg. Editors were instructed to "eliminate everything," erasing "all traces of an online presence.” When asked about the meeting, one source said: "It was the same as usual — he berated everyone and said he didn't f*cking need any of us."
"If I can't have you, nobody can,” was how another source — who headed one of Patriot’s outlets — described Prigozhin's position during the meeting.
Why the world should care
It’s clear that Prigozhin can no longer pursue any business interests in Russia. This was confirmed when the Russian Defense Ministry terminated a food supply contract with Prigozhin's main company Concord. According to Russian propagandists, Prigozhin's companies had earned 2 trillion rubles ($23 billion) from state contracts.