Yveneny Prigozhin’s wartime atrocities propelled the brutal mercenary into the limelight. But Prigozhin—who was once Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chef and a small-time criminal—also held a title as one of the world’s biggest disinformation peddlers. For years, Prigozhin operated the notorious Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that meddled in US elections and beyond.
When Prigozhin suddenly died in a mysterious plane crash on August 23, around two months after he led his Wagner Group mercenaries in a failed mutiny against Putin, the trolls didn’t stop posting. Instead, according to a new analysis shared with WIRED, some continued to show their support for him.
In the days immediately after his death, a coordinated network of pro-Prigozhin accounts on X (formerly known as Twitter) pushed messages saying that the warlord was a hero and good for Russia, despite the Wagner Group’s failed rebellion against Putin in June. These messages also blamed the West for the plane crash and said that the Wagner Group would continue operating in Africa.
“It was not profitable for Putin to kill Prigozhin. PMC [private military company] carry a lot of weight in Africa, and Prigozhin skillfully managed it, despite his ‘character quirks,’” one account posted on X. “Prigozhin served for the good of Russia, remained faithful to his military oath, and was killed by saboteurs, or terrorists mined the plane,” another speculated. “In short, he just ditched his phone and disappeared into the sunset, just like in a typical action movie,” a third posted.
The organized accounts were all identified and shared with WIRED by Antibot4Navalny, an anonymous group of volunteers who track Russian-language influence operations on X. A person behind the group, whom WIRED granted anonymity due to safety concerns, says they started inspecting the posts of suspected X accounts after the crash when they “noticed that Prigozhin is surprisingly covered in an exclusively positive light.” The group found 30 accounts pushing pro-Prigozhin narratives, they say.
The activity could be a sign that Prigozhin remained in control of the Internet Research Agency troll factory until he died, the group claims, adding that it echoes similar activity they previously saw. Reports have said that after the attempted June uprising, Prigozhin-owned news websites and the troll factory were being shut down or looking for new owners. “Domestically, there was a lot of debate whether or not Prigozhin lost his control over the troll factory as one of the immediate aftermaths of the mutiny,” the Antibot4Navalny member says.
While the posts on X are only a tiny snapshot of social media activity, they highlight how Russian-linked propaganda has changed since the Internet Research Agency interfered in US politics in 2016, experts say. The Russian misinformation and disinformation industry has evolved into a rich ecosystem of state-backed media, massive Telegram channels, and more conventional social media posts. Millions of people follow so-called military bloggers and war journalists on Telegram—some of these channels are linked to the Russian state, while others are aligned with Pirgozhin and the Wagner Group. But all can muddy the waters or repeat set lines.