Our recent investigation into a campaign to put pro-Brexit letters in local newspapers led to a flurry of online comments.
In itself that is not unusual, but many of these comments were abusive, while others accused us of a conspiracy.
They came in response to our two stories on a suspected fake persona spreading messages through regional media.
These pieces prompted 162 comments on our website. When we investigated them, we found 95 had come from the same source, despite appearing to be from a mix of different profiles.
Here are the full details of what happened when we looked into the mysterious comments.
How Veronika used fake addresses
We published an investigation on June 4 into letters sent to papers across England – including the Bristol Post – purportedly from a Russian woman called Veronika Oleksychenko.
‘She’ had got near-identical letters published in at least eight local newspapers, from the Wilts and Glos Standard to the Sunderland Echo, each time presenting as a resident of the local area.
In some of the messages, she gave fake addresses. Her supposed home in Bristol – 104A Eastgate Road – did not exist. There was no trace of her on social media.
The letters from ‘Veronika’ praised Brexit. Fake news expert Alice Stollmeyer told us they indicated a fake persona, pointing out shared themes with Russian disinformation.
The messages also mentioned Veronika’s book, Dooley Street: The Daughters of Brexit? Self-published in February and available on Amazon in Kindle form, the 354-page novel presents a vision of Britain verging on civil war in 2030.
For our follow-up story, published on June 6, we spoke to the woman who lived at the address given by Veronika in her letter to the Gloucester Citizen newspaper. We reported the Churchdown resident’s anger at the “immoral” use of her address.
Comments flood in
In the hours after we ran these stories, people started to give their views in the comments sections. Some were regular contributors whom we recognised. Other profiles were less familiar.
Having noticed the aggressive tone of some posts, we took a look at the commenters’ website profiles.
We found 95 comments from 45 profiles – all with different email addresses – shared the same IP address.
Every device on the Internet has a unique IP address – and according to an IP tracker, this one was based in Dorset, with Internet supplied by Virgin Media.
Each of the 45 profiles had been created shortly before the comments were posted.
They seemed to fall into two categories. There were those that praised Veronika, and those that attacked the stories and the reporter behind them – that’s me, Conor Gogarty.
‘Twisted little creep’
A profile named Sandra posted: “What a twisted little creep this journalist Conor Gogarty must be.”
SteveLaw blasted: “All I can say is shame on Conor Gogarty. What an unpleasant and callous person.”
Bettyboo’s contribution was: “Shameful journalism. I feel like starting up a petition or something to get Conor Gogarty sacked. Please don’t let him write anything else. Send him to the Gulag.”
Geoff55 wrote: “It seems to me a bit like that whole Project Fear business… I fear for journalism in this country, I really do, if people like Cogarty [sic] are in the ascendant.”
In two comments I was branded a stalker. Other insults included:
– Horrible journalist
– Pathetic journalist
– Typical anti-Brexit journalist
– World-class p****
– Very fake journalist
One user named MooseMolloy, which was not linked to the same IP, wrote: “Lots of troll attacks here on journalist and [Bristol Post] – sounds like the Post is on to something.”
Quizmachinist, an account linked to the shared IP, replied: “I have it on good authority that MooseMolloy is one of Conor Gogarty’s usernames that he uses to post comments on his own stories.”
Botcheeks commented: “What is this talk of Russian bots? It sounds like a load of cheeky nonsense.”
In some instances, one profile would reply to another which was connected to the same IP, praising the comment it had posted.
For example, after flimflam called me “a bit of a stalker, and weird”, SwindonLass replied: “Totally agree basicaly” [sic].
One profile, called Randombotcommentator, commented 11 times, but only to repeat the same two phrases – “yes agree” and “no disagree”.
He stated his agreement when replying to comments from the shared IP and disagreement to others.
When WestonSuperMan described me as “some kind of stalker”, Randombotcommentator’s response was “yes agree”.
And when a comment not from the shared IP said Bristol Live was “exposing the fake news industry”, Randombotcommentator replied “no disagree”.
Then there were the comments that showed support for Veronika.
Fanclubbb wrote: “I’m glad this article made me aware of Veronika Oleksychenko’s work because Dooley Street’s actually a good book. People should give it a go. Are there any pics of her?”
GlastoGirl commented: “I’ve read these articles and bought this book Dooley Street by Veronika Oleksychenko. I like it, it’s good so far. Would like to meet up with Veronika. I think I’m in love a little bit.”
StuTheStudent added: “So, I’m with the Glasto Girl. But I don’t just love Veronika. I lurrve her. Lurrve Veronika.”
Some commenters claimed to have met Veronika.
Garry Casales wrote: “Just to say I knew Veronika Oleksychenko a little back. I was on a college evening course with her and she was lovely. A really sweet girl actually.
“She was blonde, prob about average female height, maybe a bit less. I guess she was in her mid-20s or something. And she was hot. Really hot. I don’t have any contact with her now. I wish, but there u go.”
Casales was the only one to contact me directly, with an email repeating almost exactly the same message as his comment.
Some of the profile names seemed to nod to the themes of our stories, like RonaldTrump, theconspiracists and 1984fan.
Others suggested a knowledge of Bristol. There was CityRover, an apparent reference to Bristol’s two main football clubs, as well as MisterBristol.
Perhaps the most significant comment came from DanMan, who described Veronika as “homeless” and accused me of “sticking the boot in” to homeless people.
Veronika had previously said she was “technically homeless” in an email to us, but this was not mentioned in either of our stories.
It begged the question of how DanMan could have been aware of that detail without inside knowledge of Veronika’s messages.
But when we tried to pose the question in an email, it bounced back with a message saying his email address, email@example.com, could not be found.
The same thing happened when we attempted to contact all the other commenters. Some of their accounts were connected to Hotmail addresses, others with Outlook, but none seemed able to receive emails.
We checked Veronika’s emails to see if she shared the same Dorset-based IP, and found she did not.
The tracker said her IP appeared to be based in London, but warned: “This is likely a mail server – not an individual.”
A mail server is a digital post office that delivers emails to and from a client computer – without having to reveal that device’s location.
Trail leads to school
(Image: Google Maps)
Next we decided to take a closer look at the location of the Dorset-based IP. The tracker we used gave its postcode as BH15 4BQ, in Poole.
There was only one address in this postcode, a secondary academy called Carter Community School.
When we contacted the school, a spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that these comments in no way originated at the school.
“Our IT team has investigated fully and the IP address used does not match that of Carter. To be clear, Carter does not use Virgin Media, which is the provider the IP Address is registered to.
“We trust that this makes clear the school has no involvement whatsoever in any negative or malicious comments you may have experienced.”
The school’s position was supported when we fed the IP through several other trackers, and they each gave slightly different postcodes in the Dorset area.
Tracking IPs is not an exact science, and it should be noted that there are sophisticated methods of disguising real IP locations.
What the expert says
We presented our latest findings to disinformation expert Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of the Defending Democracy initiative.
She said: “It seems you uncovered a tiny political information operation. So what exactly are we looking at here?
“A British pro-Brexit troll factory? A Russian troll factory based in the UK, to make it harder to link their operations to the Kremlin? Or just a whizz kid hoping to get a gig but who forgot about the IP address?
“Whatever it is, it’s very sloppy work – if I were Putin I wouldn’t hire them.”
Ms Stollmeyer pointed out the possibility that the comments stem from the same source as Veronika’s emails, or that they are a hoax to get free publicity for her novel.
Has this happened before?
The personal abuse in the comments on our website has similarities to the case of Finnish journalist Jesikka Aro.
In 2014 Aro wrote a piece on Russian ‘troll farms’. These have been accused of spreading disinformation in Western countries through the Internet, on issues including Brexit and immigration.
After Aro’s investigation was published, she was besieged with a wave of online posts, personally attacking her with insulting and untrue claims.
Though the scale of this abuse was much greater than that found on our website, the case shows there is a precedent for journalism on suspected Russian disinformation to provoke online attacks.
Ms Stollmeyer said: “Trolls often operate in ‘teams’. In a Russian troll factory, employees are given separate ‘roles’ they must play while maintaining their online personae.
“For example, one attacks, two others agree or provide more information. Together, they create the illusion of genuine activity on internet forums.
“In this case it is clear the trolls were instructed or agreed among themselves to use similar talking points – attacking the journalist, calling him ‘conspiracy-obsessed’, ‘immoral’ and a ‘stalker’, claiming they knew Veronika and fancied her.”
The Russian government has repeatedly denied using troll farms to interfere with Western countries.
In a final twist to the tale, Veronika did give a response when I put our new findings to her.
Instead of replying to me, she contacted our digital editor, Sian David, writing: “I am emailing you as you are the paper boss.”
She added: “I only read the stories about the ‘Brexit’ letters on Thursday, so I was a couple of weeks behind on that. I don’t get online so much. And I have been doing much voluntary work.
“I enjoyed reading the stories. It was amusingly the work of someone trying to find pro-Brexit conspiracy around every corner.
“I also enjoy reading the comments section at the end of the 2 story articles, written by people of the public.”
She signed off with a kiss.