Published on January 24th, 2017 | by Zachary Shahan0
Beware Of Trump Trolls & Fake Supporters — From Russia, D.C., & Elsewhere
January 24th, 2017 by Zachary Shahan
As someone who covered climate science during the Russian-fabricated “climategate” scandal and who has moderated thousands of comment threads over the past 7 or so years (tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual comments), I have come to learn a few things about the “democratic web.”
As everyone should know by now, Russia clearly had a hand in electing Donald Trump — a big one — and that was not only in hacking and fake news (though, it’s great those stories got out there and got so much attention). Russia was also very clearly involved in internet astroturfing in countless comment threads. Such astroturfing often comes across as idiotic to humans with their heads screwed on straight, but it is actually highly effective. (If it wasn’t, Russia wouldn’t be spending tens of millions of dollars on this strategy.)
Basically, many of the comments posted on popular media sites and blogs — as well as on sites like Facebook, reddit, and Twitter — are not authentic, real, legit comments. In plenty of cases, they aren’t even from humans. In many more cases, they are from paid “trolls.”
(Quick note to media executives and bloggers: Enabling this astroturfing is counterproductive to your entire professional purpose — it’s a dereliction of duty. I’ll post more comments and suggestions on this matter at the bottom of this article.)
Comments from “concerned Americans” and “environmentalists” often come from people based in other countries (not infrequently, Russia) who are getting some crappy paychecks by pretending to be Americans. Again, in case it seems unlikely or ridiculous, let me emphasize that this “concern trolling” does indeed influence public opinion, sway portions of the electorate, and interfere with our democracy.
Democracy is built on people having access to useful, important information and engaging in politics. Democracy becomes cancerous when it is overrun by fake citizens, disinformation campaigns, foreign (or domestic) propaganda campaigns, and internet astroturfing.
A couple of hours ago, I was scrolling Google News, came across an interesting story on ProPublica about the Trump administration imposing a freeze on EPA grants and contracts, and ventured down into the comments for a quick glance. I was disappointed to see obvious concern trolling and astroturfing that apparently isn’t being adequately addressed by the site moderation team. On the plus side, real commenters are calling it out to some degree, there are some great authentic comments, and the real commenters are getting upvoted more than the trolls. However, there are no doubt actual humans — Americans even — being disinformed and influenced by the astroturfing.
If people in the media or normal readers think this is no big deal, I really, really encourage you to not view this matter so lightly. There’s a reason the KGB and the Trump campaign almost definitely invested (and continue to invest) in this method of persuasion — it works.
The method is utilized when it comes to wind energy stories, solar energy stories, electric vehicle stories, political stories, climate change stories, and I’m sure much more. If you were hoping the Trump-related astroturfing would go away after the election, I’m sorry to say that seems hugely unlikely.
Trump and his top advisors are well aware of how simple comments — published on the web or stated elsewhere — influence public opinion. Trump wants to be viewed as a successful president — probably even much more than he wants to be a successful president. He has a long and well documented history of obsession with his brand and even the slightest negative comments about him. He will try hard to control the story from every angle possible — including concern trolling and astroturfing. So will his Russian allies, who have been focused on this method of public persuasion for years.
We all need to be vigilant if we want to maintain or regain semblances of democracy in the US, in Europe, in Japan, in Korea, and elsewhere. Importantly, we need to be vigilant if we don’t want many of the benefits of the internet to be demolished by a cancer-ravaged fake global democracy. Here are a few final tips for readers and publishers:
Readers: Pay close attention to the history, profile, and patterns of commenters you run across on the web. Additionally, I encourage you to eschew comment threads on sites where moderation is lax. You may think you can get in and out unscathed by the fake commentary, but we are more susceptible to propaganda than we think. However, calling out the trolling for what it is can be helpful, particularly in pushing community moderators to stop enabling such activity, so if you want to take on that dirty work, more power to you.
Publishers: I will steal the advice Joe Romm of Think Progress published years ago — either very carefully moderate your comment threads or don’t allow comments at all. Providing an easy outlet for powerful propaganda machines and disinformation campaigns is an assault on democracy. It is highly irresponsible. Don’t fool yourself into believing the easy way out (letting people post practically anything they want) is the most moral or democratic approach. you are providing the trolls with a feast, and they aren’t leaving much food for our theoretical democracy.
Of course, the challenges with facts and democracy aren’t only with the internet trolls …