LONDON, United Kingdom - Russia has turned an old factory in Saint Petersburg into a so-called troll farm to spread disinformation and target Kremlin critics, including world leaders, according to UK government-funded research disclosed Sunday.
The site in the Russian city is allegedly being used to "spread lies" on social media and in comment sections of popular websites, Britain's foreign ministry said in a statement detailing what it called a "sick" operation.
The ministry, which will share the research with social media platforms, claimed it found paid employees of the troll factory were targeting politicians as well as musicians and bands, in countries including Britain, South Africa and India.
They use online platforms to recruit and co-ordinate new sympathizers who then target the social media profiles of Kremlin critics, spamming them with comments backing Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine, it added.
The trolls have targeted the accounts of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other UK ministers, alongside those of world leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, according to the ministry.
Social media accounts of bands and musicians including Daft Punk, David Guetta, Tiesto and Rammstein also appear to have been targeted by the disinformation operation, the research found.
"We cannot allow the Kremlin and its shady troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin's illegal war," Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
"The UK Government has alerted international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations."
Traces of the operation have been detected across eight online platforms, including Telegram, Twitter and Facebook, but were particularly concentrated on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, it said.
TikTok influencers are allegedly being paid to amplify pro-Kremlin narratives.
A Telegram channel called "Cyber Front Z" -- the letter Z signifies support for the war in Russia -- is said to play a key role in the operation.
Its headquarters are allegedly located in rented space in Saint Petersburg's Arsenal Machine-building Factory, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.
Researchers said the group seems to have learned from the tactics used by conspiracy theorists as well as from the Islamic State terror group.
The UK foreign ministry said the trolling operation has suspected links to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin accused of controlling the notorious Saint Petersburg-based bot farm the Internet Research Agency.
Britain and the US have previously sanctioned both Prigozhin and the bot farm.
© Agence France-Presse