It’s Troll Week on Mashable. Join us as we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of internet trolling.
Fellow citizens of the internet, it’s time to face facts: We are at war.
An authoritarian nation state invaded our beloved platform with a shady shape-shifting army of paid writers, and did its best to populate it with highly divisive, truth-obscuring garbage. Now other authoritarian nation states are attempting to do the same.
And because not enough of us are truly aware of this fact — hey, who can blame us, it’s really bizarre! — we are losing the war. We aren’t even using the right terminology to describe the problem, so how can we ever hope to fight back?
Here’s the issue in a nutshell: We seem to have collectively decided to call members of this shape-shifting army “trolls.” That’s exactly how they want us to think of them. The internet knows trolls: They annoy, they harass, they attack targets in swarms. They’ve always been with us, and always will be.
What trolls don’t do is systematically assume hundreds of fake identities or work toward a geopolitical goal on behalf of a foreign adversary. It would be more accurate to call these invaders undercover intelligence operatives. Or in a word, spies.
Cold War Redux
Because the nation state that started all this is Russia, we carry a set of historical assumptions that work against a clear-eyed assessment of the situation. We remember the Joseph McCarthy-led “Red Scare” of the 1950s as a shameful moment in American history, and rightly so. The bullying and blacklisting should never be forgotten.
We also hear “Russian spies” and our minds go to James Bond, you know, campy undercover agents in tuxes and slinky dresses. Didn’t we leave that all behind in the 1980s?
Well, yes, we did. And then in 2000, a former East Berlin KGB agent named Vladimir Putin won a presidential election after a series of so-called terrorist bombings, about which intelligence experts remain dubious. Putin then made common cause with Russia’s oil-rich oligarchs — and thus began nearly two decades of murders, or assassination attempts, on opposition leaders and investigative journalists.
The internet-based information warfare can be traced back to 2013. That’s when the St. Petersburg Times first alerted the world to an entity in that city calling itself the Internet Research Agency, which was paying employees to flood the comments sections of stories about opposition leaders and Russia’s rollback of rights for LGBT citizens.
The IRA operatives “react to certain news with torrents of mud and abuse,” an activist named Vladimir Volokhonsky told the St. Petersburg Times. “This makes it meaningless for a reasonable person to comment on anything there.”
IRA activity ramped up in 2014, and crossed to U.S. shores for the first time that year — where it made its first foray into fake news. This just so happened to coincide with the 2014 midterm elections for Congress.
The IRA found every fresh wound in American society, stuck its finger in, and tugged.
Via YouTube videos, tweets, and phone texts, the IRA convinced much of a Louisiana town that there had been an explosion in a nearby chemical factory. Seeing similar media three months later during the Ebola panic, Georgia voters believed that the flesh-eating virus had arrived in Atlanta. On the same day, a different fake video told of a black woman being gunned down by police.
The IRA found every fresh wound in American society, stuck its finger in, and tugged. Via a fake account called Blacktivist, it encouraged a demonstration at the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia. It created a Facebook group of “2nd Amendment patriots” and one called “LGBT United;” their Facebook ads received millions of impressions. The IRA designed hundreds of Twitter accounts to look like heartland newspapers, such as @KansasDailyNews, @JacksonCityPost, @MilwaukeeVoice and @StLouisOnline.
To the IRA, the politics of these accounts didn’t matter. All that mattered was the potential for havoc.
In 2015, the IRA faked a video of a U.S. soldier shooting a Qu’ran, likely hoping to cause an uproar in the Muslim world. It didn’t even seem to matter that the video was disprovable when you looked closely — the soldier’s helmet was something you could buy online for $25, not Army issue. By the time viewers disproved it, the shape-shifting army of info-spies had moved on to its next issue.
If you haven’t heard of any of these greatest hits, it’s because they have been drowned out by the controversy over the IRA’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. But the facts of each case are surprisingly clear.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, is famously silent on most things. But he has told us exactly what the IRA did next, in a damningly methodical indictment that named 12 major players — his first and only Russia-related charges to date.
(Separately, on Friday, the Justice Department indicted another IRA figure on information warfare charges related to the 2018 midterm elections — showing clearly that the threat is not over yet.)
Trolls provide cover
While those first IRA forays were happening in the U.S., a parallel development was unwittingly helping to provide cover. Swarms of actual trolls (read: people, mostly men, with a grudge and too much time on their hands) emerged from sites such as 4Chan and Reddit.
Spurred on by rising alt-right figures such as Milo Yiannopolous and Mike Cernovich, who were reportedly working to a playbook called Trust Me I’m Lying, these troll swarms saw diversity and feminism as the enemy. They brought us concentrated harassment campaigns such as GamerGate, ComicsGate, and the backlash against the all-female Ghostbusters reboot.
The scale of the trolling was unprecedented, and it took some time for the internet to fully figure out what was going on. As the various hate-gates are studied and reassessed, there is a legitimate argument for defining their collective trolling as what Wired recently called “domestic information terrorism.”
But the Internet Research Agency activity is a different order of magnitude. We’re talking international information terrorism: tens of thousands of accounts operated by paid individuals on every major web platform, each one given a quota of a hundred posts a day. We’re talking hundreds of millions of users who saw these posts, thinking they were genuine.
The full scale of the attack is still emerging, and the numbers keep going up. Last week alone, Twitter released a dataset with 10 million tweets and 2 million images from Russian-linked accounts going back to 2009. “It is clear that information operations and coordinated inauthentic behavior will not cease,” the company wrote.
With an oligarch-funded budget of $1.25 million per month on one influence project alone, the thousand-strong IRA aimed “to conduct what it called ‘information warfare against the United States of America’ through fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other Internet-based media,” the Mueller indictment says.
Enter the Jedi
Another reason to call this a spy campaign is the way that those fictitious personas tried to blend in. Last month, a study of a thousand Twitter accounts that attacked Star Wars director Rian Johnson concluded that 16 of them were IRA members.
In January and February 2018, the accounts latched on to an early wave of criticism of Johnson’s movie The Last Jedi, then ceded the stage to disgruntled fans.
“The KGB was pushing a specific ideology, and these guys aren’t.”
Those who noted that it was a small number of accounts, or claimed this was a way to smear everyone who disliked The Last Jedi as Russian operatives, missed the point. Which is that the shape-shifting army did not miss a single opportunity to jump into any debate that divided American society, even a debate about a movie.
“They’re method acting,” says Morton Bay, the Ph.D behind the Last Jedi study, who has been tracking what he calls “Russian influence operatives” since 2015. “If the Grammys are on, these accounts will be commenting on it to give themselves a sense of legitimacy … they latch on to every cultural division, however small.”
Such tactics, Bay concluded, were similar to those used by the infamous spy service where Putin cut his teeth. “Their methods are very close to what the KGB was doing during the Cold War,” Bay says. “The only difference is the KGB was pushing a specific ideology, and these guys aren’t.”
Instead of ideology, the IRA aimed to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It consistently aimed to flood the zone with shit, to echo the infamous words of Steve Bannon. Fill the comments section of honest stories and harass their writers, and soon there’ll be fewer honest stories. The same holds true for social media as a whole. They want to exhaust us to death.
In a recent study, Hungarian security researcher Anatoly Reshetnikov described this process as “neutrollization” — or “creating conditions where political mobilization becomes absurd, so any risk to the regime is neutralized.”
One of the few employees interviewed since leaving the IRA directly compared himself with Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Working there felt like “you were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line.”
Doesn’t sound an awful lot like trolling, does it? Sounds like something worse.
Sounds like information war.
The internet strikes back
Understandably, there is reluctance in the U.S. to describe any of these activities as acts of war. For one thing, many of us are employing a Cold War perspective: Don’t antagonize the Russians! They’re armed to the teeth! Do we really want to return to those dark decades of superpower conflict?
To answer that question, we have to change our definition of what conflict actually is. And here we’re dealing with another 20th century mindset: Aren’t wars fought over physical territory? Aren’t they won with tanks and bombs?
Propaganda’s younger, hipper cousin, information terrorism, is now the most important weapon of war on the planet.
Not since 9/11, no. As America learned painfully in Iraq, nation states are won and lost in the hearts and minds of the people. These days, the only wars that matter are in those minds, on the plain of ideas. Propaganda’s younger, hipper cousin, information terrorism, is now the most important weapon of war on the planet.
We saw that clearly in the past week, as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia fought a desperate rear-guard action against reports that it had killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Turkish consulate. Twitter had to step in again to shut down bots that were flooding the online discussion with pro-Saudi hashtags.
But it isn’t just Russia and Saudi Arabia. Syria, Iran, China, North Korea: Everyone’s getting into the info-war game.
Of course, we shouldn’t use the word “war” lightly. And thanks to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the phrase “info war” is tainted — but we also shouldn’t shrink from using it. Allowing a state of war to exist in the shadows is exactly how Putin approached his invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The eastern half of the country came under assault from “little green men” — Russian special forces that Russia denied belonged to them. The last thing he wanted was global economic sanctions, so that’s exactly what we gave him.
In the case of the IRA, no one is suggesting we ramp up tensions or rattle any nuclear sabers. This isn’t a matter for the Pentagon. If this information war is being fought on the internet, then the internet is where we must fight back. If the object is to wear us down with lies, then we must not be worn down. If truth is under attack, then the truth is what we must protect.
That means calling out bullshit whenever you see it, even if you see it all the time. It means maintaining skepticism about no-name news sources and oddly-named social media accounts. It means staying in touch with that crazy Trump-loving uncle who forwards the conspiracy theory emails; it means repeatedly speaking calmly and clearly about a Russian influence operation that is both ridiculous and demonstrably true.
And it means that we stop using a cutesy word like “trolling” to describe a massive, coordinated, ongoing military-style affair. “Don’t feed the trolls” is a piece of advice as old as the internet; to that truism we should add, “Don’t confuse the spies with trolls.”