The War over Truth and Reality as we know it: The Story behind Russian Troll farms

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A photo of a building that was used as a Russian Troll farm, though now it’s probably abandoned.

russian troll farm

Before we head down this Rabbit hole I just want to declare I have no grievances with the Russian people, the people have nothing to do with this. If anything they are the casualties of this war and I do sympathize with their frustrations at the western media and their obsession with Russia. Unfortunately that obsession is quite justifiable, so I just wanted to clarify that I have no issues with the people of the various nations we will discuss but rather their politicians and government and financial institutions. I know that sounded tedious and futile but I felt it was important to say, I hope certain individuals would appreciate it.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months you’ve been bound to hear of a man called Donald Trump (a man I do not like). Last November he won the US Presidential Election and in January he was officially sworn in to the oval office. He’s been president about ten months now and…well, it’s been-for lack of a better word; A Shit Show. Every day of every week there’s something new to be outraged about and it follows the usual cycle. Trump does something, cue outrage, Trump comments on outrage, cue more outrage, after forty eight hours the story usually fades away. Rinse and Repeat. These scandals never really last, except for one; Russia.

The Russia investigation/scandal is an incredibly complicated and long-winded story that I’m not going to explain in too much detail. For that the most nuanced representation of the events I think exists was explained by John Green from Vlogbrothers. If you can’t be bothered to watch the video basically there’s a hell of a lot of smoke but as of yet no fire; there’s a lot of people close to Trump with connections to Russia. Personally I think of this whole thing as how John Oliver described it; “Stupid Watergate, a scandal with the potential ramifications of Watergate- but where everyone involved is Stupid and Bad at Everything”

There’s a lot of speculation around Trump and Russia and to those who are not familiar with the story it’s quite confusing. So to start of let’s clarify that Russia didn’t actually hack the election to ensure Hillary Clinton’s defeat (although they have been trying to hack some voting machines before) and Hilary (a woman I do not like) didn’t just lose solely because of Russia but because of many other factors e.g. alienating potential voters, failing to campaign to the electorate in certain states, James Comey etc. But Russia did have an influence in the Election for sure. The most serious offence of course was projecting propaganda and fake news online in certain US states. Facebook got a lot of criticism for it’s inability to fight back against fake news but to their credit they have been trying, to discuss the topic of fake news distribution and the profession of trolling we have to lay out some basic key terms that have been described in further detail by Facebook newsroom’s Whitepaper .

Information (or Influence) Operations – Actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome. These operations can use a combination of methods, such as false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts (false amplifiers) aimed at manipulating public opinion.

False News– News articles that purport to be factual, but which contain intentional misstatements of fact with the intention to arouse passions, attract viewership, or deceive.

False Amplifiers – Coordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion (e.g., by discouraging specific parties from participating in discussion, or amplifying sensationalistic voices over others).

Disinformation – Inaccurate or manipulated information/content that is spread intentionally. This can include false news, or it can involve more subtle methods, such as false flag operations, feeding inaccurate quotes or stories to innocent intermediaries, or knowingly amplifying biased or misleading information. Disinformation is distinct from misinformation, which is the inadvertent or unintentional spread of inaccurate information without malicious intent.

The role of “false news” in information operations
While information operations may sometimes employ the use of false narratives or false news as tools, they are certainly not one and the same. There are several important distinctions:

• Intent: The purveyors of false news can be motivated by financial incentives, individual political motivations, attracting clicks, or all the above. False news can be shared with or without malicious intent. Information operations, however, are primarily motivated by political objectives and not financial benefit.

• Medium: False news is primarily a phenomenon related to online news stories that purport to come from legitimate outlets. Information operations, however, often involve the broader information ecosystem, including old and new media.

• Amplification: On its own, false news exists in a vacuum. With deliberately coordinated amplification through social networks, however, it can transform into information operations.

It’s no secret that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is fairly dodgy. Being an ex-KGB member and a real life version of Tywin Lannister doesn’t exactly make him look like a trust worthy figure. The man is incredibly authoritarian, so how can he fend off against something that doesn’t bend well to authority; the Internet. Well, that’s where the troll farms come in.  The purpose of a troll farm is to employ people who would spend the day spreading fake news stories, commenting under legitimate news sites to voice an opinion they didn’t even have with very poor spelling and grammar, they were essentially doing what regular trolls did; trying to outrage people in order to gain a reaction, but they got paid to do it. Their vulgar hate was intended to shut down discourse and alienate people from political topics.

The Russian government isn’t stupid enough to fund these people directly so they’re probably working off the Payroll of some Russian Oligarch close to Putin or a private business that deals with the country like an oil company for example Exxon Mobil, who’s previous CEO is currently Trumps Secretary of State; Rex Tillerson. Now of course there’s no proof to this, nobody knows where the money comes from- but these Troll farms do exist.

In 2015 The New York Times  wrote a chilling article about these farms, with interviews with former employees of the Internet Research Agency (yeah, I laughed at the initials too) that described the working conditions of these employed trolls. They worked from 9am to 9pm every day like clock work, their head quarters moved around constantly to avoid media attention, most of them spent the day pretending to be three different people and they tried to be as convincing as possible. One of the former employees in the article said one of their identities was a travel and leisure blogger who had very strong opinions about the Ukraine. At some point the troll farms caught onto the reporter so one of the former employee’s brought along her “brother” for protection, her brother being a Neo-Nazi. The reporter was photographed speaking with the Neo-Nazi and the woman was edited out of the photo, the Russian media then presumed to spread the story of the encounter to delegitimize the reporter before he published his article.

That was in 2015, there’s accounts that this sort of stuff has been going on since as early as 2003. This case was notable because the troll farm was initially set up to spread anti Ukrainian propaganda since Russia had annexed Ukraine just a year earlier. To which the US set crippling sanctions on Russia causing them to go into a recession and preventing Exxon Mobil from continuing a $500 billion dollar deal they had with the Russian Government. That deal was signed in 2012, when Rex Tillerson was still running Exxon Mobil.

So Russia’s troll farms had an incentive to influence the 2016 US Election. Obama’s sanctions caused a recession, a Trump victory could have been beneficial financially but unfortunately for the Russian government the US Senate removed Trumps ability to lift the sanctions. There’s also the ideological reasons as to why Putin would want to fund Troll farms, for starters he’s ex-KGB and after the defeat of the Soviet Union he probably still holds a grudge. Conflict doesn’t just fade away, if left unresolved it festers like an infected wound until it strikes back. Russia is one of the great world super powers, causing the US to go into chaos would be incredibly beneficial to their position although only an idiot wouldn’t see the direct downside of a potential civil war in one of the most powerful countries in the world; when the whole world is made of timber a fire affects everyone.

I’m not exaggerating about a potential civil war either, though unlikely to happen I imagine it’s one of the Troll factories desired outcomes. For now they have to settle with igniting the worst in people by focusing on their greatest divisions. Russia targeted social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in order to spread fake news or spread misinformation, quotes taken out of context to amplify people’s outrage. Since social media already has that echo chamber problem it’s easy to see how these troll’s could thrive, like tabloid newspapers they pander to people’s initial prejudices and biases. If they subscribed to the troll’s own ideology then they would have believed almost anything they said, especially when most people don’t even read the article but just the outrageous headline.

These trolls are paid to distort public opinion, creating a false narrative. It doesn’t just affect the US but mainland Europe and the UK as well. In an interview with LBC an Investigative Reporter called Mike Hind talked about his journey down the rabbit hole after investigating a prominent Twitter bot that spouts Pro-Brexit and Anti-Immigrant Propaganda constantly. He noticed that he followed a lot of typically left wing voices, concluding that the bots job was to shout down differing points of view by insulting the commentator and generally shouting the same vile shite a troll usually says. I think that is true because I listen to James O’Brien quite a lot, he can be a bit of a prick at times but he’s generally a lovely man and makes some good points, and if you’ve ever had the misfortune of reading the comments under one of his videos on facebook you’ll be bombarded with the most ignorant dribble you’ve ever seen in your life. Most of these comments are from right wingers- they have no arguments, no clear points, general oversimplifications of difficult subjects and often they resolve to hurling insults and demanding he be sacked. I can’t tell if these people are real or are professional trolls working for a hostile foreign government. Or potentially they’re not even working for the Russians, they could be employed by a British right wing think tank. That’s one thing Mike Hind in his interview tried to make clear, that there are definite Professional Russian Trolls but there are domestic people that would benefit from having these trolls on their team to influence public opinion.

The Trolls aren’t just focused on spreading Right wing fake news, they take both sides. Their mission is trying to sow the seeds of division among the western people in order to either radicalize people into ideologues, deter moderate voices and create a climate so toxic that people give up on the political process and therefore don’t bother to pay attention and even refuse to vote. The aim of the game is to force the public into a state of apathy and ignorance, creating the illusion that the world has gone to hell and there’s absolutely nothing they could do about it. It’s Orwellian.

Researching these Russian Troll farms I had this itching sensation in the back of my mind, the whole thing felt somewhat familiar. It reminded me of the “Correct The Record” initiative, a Super Pac made by some Hillary suporter who was quite wealthy. The super pac was created solely to defend the honor and integrity of Hillary Clinton by spreading counter messages out there on the world wide web. Yep, someone thought it was a good idea to spend a million dollars in order to pay a bunch of guys to spend every waking hour on Facebook, Twitter, 4chan and Reddit to spread pro-Hillary propaganda, or try debating Bernie Broes or Trump supporters and going toe to toe with the worst Trolls in the world. Of course it didn’t work, they failed miserably and if anything it strengthened peoples biases and further alienated potential voters.

So Putin isn’t the only person to have his own Troll farm, the Americans do too. According to the Guardian a lot of other countries have similar programs though of course nothing as influential as Russia’s farms. China has their own troll farm called   wumao dang or “50 Cent Party” (because every time they post they get 50 cents) and it’s mostly just used domestically to spread pro-government opinions in online forums and on social media. It employs up to two million people. Ukraine has their own Troll army to combat Russia’s, they spread stories about how corrupt and violent Russia is and even spreads rumors about Putin being a pedophile but of course there’s no serious evidence to that being true whatsoever.

Turkey has it’s own farms that spread pro-Erdoğan propaganda, like Hilary’s Correct the Record they aim to spread counter narratives to Turkish people’s complaints about the President. Even adopting some uber fascist political correctness by speaking “positively” and using “positive words” that muddy the waters a lot.  The UK has their own farms but they’re a little more vague in their agenda, they’re called the 77th Brigade  which apparently spreads counter terrorist messages or pro military messages…I don’t know, they’re some kind of propagandists anyway. It’ll come to no surprise to you North Korea has their own troll farms, though they’re fucking shit. Finally we come to Israel, those of you in the Pro-Palestine corners of the internet you’ve probably heard about the professional trolls that the Israeli government employs in order to spread Pro-Israeli counter messages and trying demonify or deligitimize Palestinian concerns, well- it’s true. The Israeli government does in fact pay people to spread pro Israeli counter messages, but I imagine other middle eastern countries employ people to spread Pro-Palestine counter messages as well. Which raises the question, is anyone that I don’t know personally that talks about politics online even exist?

I mean they could exist. You could waste half an hour debating an Express reader, trying to explain that even in the EU we still have control of our boarders but to no avail. But what if they were a troll or a bot? A troll, a person someone has paid to spread false news and amplify outrage and sow division in western societies. Who are these people? I assume they’re mostly young, probably people fresh out of University who desperately need to pay off their student debts, but it could be just anyone who knows how to use a computer. Obviously there will be a few software programmers to ensure that the bots (accounts or profiles with no physical user, digital robots essentially) function properly. Many of which are either highly active or remain dormant for the time being.

Researching these stories it still sounds surreal. But it makes sense. If you want to control what people think you need to gain control of what people say, if you want to gain control of the future you need to gain control of the present- to gain control of the present you must gain control of the past. If you want to gain control of public opinion and potentially a government- you must gain control of political discourse, controlling what people say, creating false events in the past to sway public opinion, creating fake news stories of the present to influence people’s outlook on the future. It’s very Orwellian indeed.

There’s a danger here, an obvious danger but also a hidden danger. The obvious danger is of course the fake news which influences public opinion, effecting public policy. Detering people from engaging the political sphere, confirming people’s own biases and the constant Trolling that alienates Moderate voices and justifies public commentators outrage, both left and right. But the hidden danger is just as deadly. What if these Troll farms become a scapegoat? What if these stories go mainstream, creating a brand new red scare. Imagine if people became even more hostile towards people with differing views? I reckon in a year or two we’ll be seeing a lot more phrases such as “You’re a Russian Spy” or “You’re just a Troll” which will be used to shut down discourse and that is dangerous because for the minority it will be effective, their echo chambers shall remain quite comfortable. For the silent majority it won’t, because if everyone is a Russian Troll then no one is a Russian Troll.

I’ve already seen it happen. A lot of media outlets are running these stories about Russia hiring Trolls to spread Far Right and Far Left propaganda, meaning political commentators won’t feel the need to see if there are any legitimate grievances for either side because for them they will have ceased to be real people with real concerns that effect their real life. Fake people, Fake problems.

If you’ve made it this far you’re probably thinking how this could affect you (If you’re not British or American, like me) and you’re probably annoyed that people know more about what’s going on in America than they do in their own town. I feel for you, I dream of a world in which I don’t have to think about America or Britain. But I don’t live in that world. This also effects everyone, it’s a political ripple effect.

I’ll give an example. Social Issues are political issues that aren’t things that concern democratic institutions or taxation or finances or anything like that; it affects solely society and western culture as a whole. An example of a social issue would be Gay marriage or Abortion. But for now we’ll focus on something less divisive. Take Feminism for example, now there are a lot of people who identify as Feminists that want things like more women in positions of power or complain about women who are fired for many different reasons but they feel that person in particular had been targeted because “they were a woman” which is debatable. I mean let’s be clear about it here, there are definite sexist assholes out there. I will concede to that, but a lot of people (or Anti-Feminists) would say the firing had nothing to do with her gender but the merit of her work, behavior and character. These debates plague the internet and unfortunately the media has caught on, so they’ll write cheap opinion pieces and click-bait articles that alienate both sides of the debate and cause polarization to occur. All in the name of profit. Which begs the question if Corporations have their own Troll Farms? Though they already have their bought and paid for Critics and media outlets, it would help to have a sway in Public opinion like in that United Airlines incident a few months ago. A few trolls could be paid to derail that conversation. But I digress, back to my example.

I used to be very interested in these debates, I used to be quite Anti-Feminist (Just to clarify, I’m not anti woman. I believe women should be paid equally to a man if they work the same job with the same amount of hours and other affects of income. I’m pro-choice, I’m against female genital mutilation etc. I think women are nice to some degree- I just dislike the toxic element of the ideology. What people refer to as “Third wave feminism”) but I’ve become more moderate in my views. I was talking to a friend of mine in the Auction Room one day, he’s a member of the SDLP and at this time the RHI scandal happened with the DUP, the leader (Arlene Foster) was expected to resign but I suggested that she’d refuse because she would take advantage of the media’s political ripple effect about Feminism and “Refuse to bow down to Misogyny” he laughed at me, gave me a dirty look as well. A few days later she did exactly that.

So say you live in Northern Ireland and the international media never shuts up about these Troll farms, that will cause a political ripple effect. How long will it take before the a DUP spokesperson shuts down a twitter debate by simply saying; “You’re obviously working for some kind of Republican Troll Farm”. How long before Sinn Feinn does that? How long would it take before political discourse turns into “Everyone who disagrees with me is a Russian Spy” and further entrenches their very own echo chambers? That’s what worries me.

I miss the days when we had our own Trolls. They weren’t foreign agents who were paid to sway public opinion. They were just sad, broken men who were frustrated with life and desired attention. The only way they could get it was by getting a rise out of people. They didn’t have the courage of their convictions, they wouldn’t say what they said online in real life. They had no motives except one; Burn it All.

If like me you’re worried about the chance of being in an echo chamber or being influenced by Trolls; have a healthy media diet. Listen to a few mainstream media outlets, maybe a few left and right leaning tabloids, avoid media personalities, don’t trust memes and meme pages, if you like political pages with a certain agenda take a grain of salt each tie they post. There’s not much you can do really, there’s no point in arguing with a troll and you can’t fact check everything. Just try to keep a hold of some kind of consistent reality, one day at a time.Right up until the bombs drop.

Despite being a complete and utter pervert and a potential sex offender, the American Right Wing political commentator Bill O’Reilly occasionally made a few good points. I recall one of the most recognizable right now. In his debate with Jon Stewart he was asked if the internet would help bridge the gap between political divisions. He said “No, It’s going to get much worse.”

 

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