Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Paying the Troll Toll

Hidden behind the virtual curtain of your computer screen, that single Oz-like wizard who's pulling the strings of a thousand-headed troll army can seem as big, and as scary, as your imagination wants it to be... 

Corporate Puppets -  from Eurekastreet

Maybe it's just because Saturn is transiting Scorpio (or something) but I've been feeling increasingly uneasy about using the internet lately.  I have all these nagging suspicions in the back of my mind that it might not be as benevolent as it makes itself out to be. This is partly because I've met many people who spend lots of time online, and many of them seem to develop problems like depression, apathy, pessimism and agoraphobia.

Then, a while back I stumbled upon some research indicating that Facebook can be physiologically addictive, and that its creators are intentionally using that addictive potential to their advantage, as well as manipulating users' emotions for unknown reasons, regardless of the psychological problems that may cause. And then, right after that, the NSA scandal broke.  

More recently, there has been a deluge of threatening comments sent to female writers and politicians in the UK. While some of the people who were most recently charged with threatening to rape and murder these women were individuals tweeting on their own private time, I couldn't help thinking that they felt encouraged by the fact that there is so much right-wing trolling going on, these days.

Most of you will be familiar with trolls: especially dense, crude right wing voices that continuously spout their strident and illogical 'views' online. Until recently, I half-assumed that these people were all isolated backwoods yahoos with limited access to human society. Many people probably still think the same thing. 

After all, their comments are usually riddled with spelling mistakes, bad grammar and profanity.  Their arguments are based upon un-sourced and unproven 'facts', when they are based on anything at all.  Very little of the information posted by trolls on the net would stand up to the scrutiny of a drunken pub debate, let alone a court of law... yet they seem to be everywhere in society. But where can they actually be found in real life? I struggle with that one because, let's face it, the majority of jobs out there require a higher level of intelligence than these guys display.

So who are they? And more importantly, why are they always online? How is it that they can immediately respond to any comment, at almost any time of day or night? They paint themselves as middle class, educated white people who are 'speaking for Joe Public' and yet, unlike Joe (and Josephine) Public, they seem to have zero responsibilities apart from trolling the web. It's almost like being a troll is their full-time job.   

Which, in many cases, it is.

In 2011, the Guardian's George Monbiot wrote that he'd been contacted by a whistle-blower who said he was, "part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them."  Sound familiar?  It will do if you've ever posted a comment that was left-wing, moderate or even just overly sympathetic on a popular news item at The Guardian's website. Try it now (go on, you know you want to) and you'll see what he  is on about.

This particular whistle-blower told Monbiot that he posed as up to 70 different individuals at a time... which probably helps to explain why different trolls' posts are often nearly identical in tone and content.  What's truly scary here is that this whistle-blower was just one employee from a single company that is providing 'social media management' services to corporate clients. A small dig around online will show you that there are many, many more companies who are providing this 'service' privately... mainly to the very rich. Well, who else can afford them? And who else is more likely to earn the public's contempt?

The government doesn't hire trolls, though - they don't need to, because they already have their own, in-house "cyber influence" teams who are trolling Joe Public on their payroll.  

Rotten to the (Grass)Roots

The practice of paying people to post supportive comments for a specific interest group online is said to have originated in China in 2004, where such posters are known as the '50 cent army'.  As the name suggests, these posters are paid 50 Chinese cents for every pro-government or counter-dissident post that they write.  In 2009, wrote that: "China’s 50 Cent Army is everybody's business.  With 300,000 people, you can see how this 'army' could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda."

This would certainly be true even if China was the only country whose government was posting right wing comments... but it isn't.  The U.S.A., Russia, the UK, Canada and Australia are a few of the countries besides China, whose governments have hired online cheerleaders for their 'cause'

"Hang on," you say, "shouldn't their cause be the same as whatever the peoples' cause is?" Um, apparently not!

Governments that have been exposed as having troll units are quick to claim that these units 'increase support' for their 'democratic' policies, which sounds kind of innocent until you remember that, actually, the public should be able to voluntarily decide whether it agrees with its government's actions, or not. If the public needs to be pressured and bullied by make-belief 'peers' into accepting the government's line on democracy, it's because its policies don't reflect what people actually want. It's because, in essence, they aren't democratic enough.

Taking a shortcut to forge the appearance of popular support for war, cuts to spending, restriction of refugee rights, or a pro-business agenda - that may win elections for otherwise marginal hardliners, but it does nothing to win the hearts and minds of real people. If anything, it only widens the divide between power and the people, increasing the chances of real social unrest. The myriad street battles that have taken place in American lately, between the public and the police, show what the outcome is of faking support for your policies... which many of the American presidential candidates have been caught doing, both in this election and in previous ones.

The above sections of a leaked document from the UK's Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) suggests ways that the internet could be used to profile users and manipulate their behaviour, using what it calls its 'cyber influence expertise.'  

The full document can be read here

In 2011 it was revealed that the U.S. military's Central Command, or Centcom, had signed a contract with the company NTrepid to 'manage online personas' for its staff.  NTrepid's software would enable every serviceman and woman to create and use up to 10 fake online aliases worldwide.  The obvious conclusion to draw from this program is that the US military's views are now hugely over-represented in the 'Joe Public' views that we find online.

According to The Guardian,  "The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations 'without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries.'"

Since the phrase 'sophisticated adversaries' is left undefined, it could just as easily refer to someone who possesses an intelligent argument against an existing military policy, as it does to someone who wants to lob a grenade at passing US Army truck.  All ends of the spectrum of dissent are sort of lumped together as a seamless whole under this and other terms that litter the existing anti-terrorism and counter-extremist laws of... well, basically, every country that has them

That vagueness is the reason why countless peaceful people - from college union activists to environmentalist leafletters to journalists - have been arrested or investigated in the name of "fighting extremism". So, to see the government's cyber-operatives talking about persuading those same 'targets' to 'conform', as they do in a classified document from the UK's Joint Threat Intelligence Research Group, is hardly reassuring. 

What is more worrying about the tone of these operations, though, is that their mandates seem to be based on an underlying presumption that the government's policies are peachy-keen as they are, and that all they need is to be defended from changeSeen from that standpoint, even voting could sort of be seen as a threat to the system; after all, it allows the public a fleeting chance to alter the status quo... the same status quo that believes itself to so flawless and beyond reproach. 

Centcom, predictably, has stated that it cannot reveal what its fake online personas are being used for.  They say that it's classified and that, since they're only allowed to use their technology overseas, we shouldn't be too worriedBut in these post-NSA times, 'classified' is not a word that inspires much confidence. And, what's to say that governments overseas aren't targeting us with the right wing trolls that are just as determined as they are to change our views?  Not to mention the fact that the internet is a border-free zone, where anything that is written over there naturally ends up over here (and vice versa).

NTrepid has also run surveillance to keep tabs on anarchist organizations in the past and, as the PrivacySos website points, out that, "The DoD is therefore paying a company that monitors the internet use of anarchists and radicals in the United States to actively inject pro-military propaganda into online conversations."  In other words, it's doing what China's 50 cent party does. 

In 2010, Canada's CBC News reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had hired a Toronto-based company called Social Media Group, "to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement."  There doesn't appear to be any record of what that counter-information actually was, though. Presumably, it was too inflammatory to print. 

Downvoted trolling responses to a discussion about seal hunting on Are these posters on the government's payroll, too?

Meanwhile, Newfloundland locals who are against the seal hunt say they feel so intimidated that they are afraid to speak up.  I have to wonder how much of a role the government's trolling 'counter arguments' have played in supporting and encouraging this climate of fear.
Last year, the British government's online propaganda unit, JTRIG, was embroiled in a minor scandal after a classified document describing its online activities was leaked.  Among other things, the document talks about achieving "conformity" by "stressing the importance of social validation" and "highlighting that others have also complied."  In plain English, that means that they want to make people agree with whatever they say because 'Everybody else is doing it, and so should you'. 

The document also explains how JTRIG could take down their enemies' arguments by “deceiving”, “disrupting”, “delaying”, “denigrating/degrading their information. They go on to explain that this could mean creating hoax websites with inaccurate facts, or intentionally confusing online discussions about controversial issues. It's not hard to see these sorts of tactics in everyday use now; hard not to come to the conclusion that the suggestions given back in 2011 document are already being implemented far and wide.

Government trolls get paid to write online comments all day (with full benefits and holidays) whereas you and I can, at best, comment a few times per day or per week.  The outcome of this is a no-brainer: the internet becomes flooded with voices urging / threatening us to think more conservatively and mutely accept the status quo, instead of making our pesky demands of the people up top, and pushing them to evolve.

The combined potential that all these trolls have to skew public perceptions is potentially overwhelming. Left unchecked, such a concerted effort to dumb down the world of online debate, which is where most debate happens these days, could totally re-engineer society's perception of itself. And well, if the rise and rise of regressive, right-wing movements in many Western countries is anything to go by, these trolls are having that exact effect. 

Afraid to Speak Up.

To me, the more insidious side of all this propaganda is in its subtle emotional impact on users of the internet. When faced by a tide of self-righteous chauvinism from from their hostile 'peers', people's feelings about society must change for the worse, as well.  

When talking about trolls with my friends, I often ask them, 'Have you ever actually met anyone who thinks or talks like a troll, or holds their exact views?' If I get a vehemently affirmative reply from the other person, I will dig a little deeper and usually, I find out that the 'person' they 'met' was on just a screen name on a forum or social media site. Or that it was a view reposted by a friend. The trolls we meet online are all too often strangers or 'a friend of a friend of a friend'*.  Believing in their actual physical existence so readily, sight unseen, is perhaps the biggest mistake that many internet users make.  

This brings me back to my first question: who are all these millions of right wing extremists with screen names like Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek?  Where are they, and what do they look like?  I think many internet users fill in those blanks for themselves by drawing on their own worst fears and/or past traumas.  They say, "It's the anonymity of the Internet that brings out the worst in us.  People lash out if they think they'll get away with it." They feel that trolls are simply mirroring an inherent vindictiveness that lurks hidden in society when, all too often, trolls are 'revealing' something that isn't actually there - be it support for tax evasion, contempt for environmental protection laws, resentment of women's rights, or anything else that requires the privileged and the powerful to change their ways.

People are fond of calling trolls "bullies". I disagree with that view. The people who hire them are the real bullies. They tend to be members of society who already have a huge say in how we live: the rich and the powerful - CEO's and government leaders.  In this feature by ABC Radio Australia, several confirmed cases of for-hire trolls are discussed; virtually all of them involve private corporations or politicians that were acting to promote their own capitalist and conservative values in the face of public criticism of it. In the rare cases of left-wing trolling, the people who hired the trolls were also in a positions of power, and their values were considerably less left-wing than those of activists on the street

So, it's mainly people who already have a high degree of influence who hire astroturfers to give them even more influence. This brings up the question of how much influence the people who hire trolls really deserve Shouldn't they just earn their popularity like the rest of us do, instead of paying for imaginary support?  And if they're going to pay for it, shouldn't they be forced to disclose how much and what kind of 'support' they've bought?

"I really have to wonder how the f*ck you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning. You are a bloody hypocrite of epic proportions. You are a man who masquerades around acting like a do-gooder, when in reality you are just scum.

Comments including the one above were anonymously posted by staff at Solaris, an Australian paper manufacturer whose activities are linked to accelerating deforestation in Indonesia, after Greenpeace exposed them. Makes you wonder what they would pay trolls to write for them, given the chance. 

Basically, astroturfing is a case of the wealthy using their advantages to change the way that people think and feel about them, instead of  responding to what those people say they actually want and need. It is social engineering, pure and simple - a form of soft despotism.  

Regular internet users know how to recognize and avoid trolls, but for the casual users who go online every now and then, the mass of vitriol can be unsettling.  I wonder how many of these users come away from their computer feeling that intolerance is the new norm. It isn't. In reality, many of the trolls out there represent a well-financed version of the old, toxic norms that the rest of us are trying to outgrow. 

Want to know more? Stories about trolls, sock puppets, astroturfing and bots are found on Storify, Techdirt and George Monbiot's blog.

Trolls embolden the bigoted, intimidate the liberal, and desensitize middle-of-the-road members of society to their expressions of rank hatred. What impact is this having on us? Look at the headlines and you'll see.  

*This just reinforces why you should never add a Facebook 'friend' who you don't personally know. Even if you do know them, you should ask them in person if they sent you a request. Trolls steal real people's names - this has happened at least twice in a left-leaning Facebook group that I was part of. 

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