What is a troll farm and what do internet trolls do? | Opinion

When was the last time you read the comments on a major article and then ran into that guy? You know, the rampant who unleashes a vicious tirade — on the subject or on the writer — that includes all sorts of backyard insults, things we were told in kindergarten not to say.

Have you ever thought that that person isn’t really crazy? And in fact she might not be “real” either?

Most of us like to take the best in people for granted, even people we only meet on the internet. But a disturbingly large number of hateful social media comments and posts come from “trolls” — not the kind in the “Lord of the Rings” movies or the miniature creatures with colored hair, but people who are paid to manipulate public opinion. (Actually, the word troll in this context is a derivative of “troller” and has been used since the 1990s to describe people looking for a discussion on the Internet.)

Few appreciate the extent of “troll farmsoperating in Russia and at least 29 other governments around the world. These “keyboard armies” operate for different reasons within each country, but they all do at least two things: spread propaganda pro-active to the agenda of those in power, and attack anyone who raises questions about that agenda.

In Russia, this has been going on via social media for nearly 10 years, according to a United States Senate Intelligence Committee report. But it wasn’t until after the 2016 election that the general public started paying attention. A Department of Justice indictment filed in 2018 suggests that hundreds of paid Russian trolls run these campaigns from an annual budget in the millions. And ahead of the 2020 election, their work has caught up an esteemed one 140 million Americans a month.

Writing on the most detailed study of Internet trolls operating in China, Ryan Fedasiuk, research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, He says the effort is “much larger than previously reported” – with 2 million paid employees publishing nearly 450 million posts each year.

These are large-scale efforts to “distract the public and change the subject” from serious issues, according to a 2017 report relationship by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of California.

Naturally, legitimate questions have been raised about similar types of lobbying in our own country, albeit different in scope and substance, especially as we learn more about how the US government has impacted social media moderation standards during the pandemic.

What is clear, however, is that some governments are not content to influence only their own citizens. Twitter said it has shut down tens of thousands of troll accounts 2020 alone and even more “amplifier” accounts that seek to broaden the influence of the trolling account.

Of course, governments have always tried to influence using any means popular at the time, and this practice is not always immoral. The first Voice of America the broadcasts, for example, were designed to combat Nazi propaganda during World War II. And some Internet trolls are exactly what they sound like: angry people who vent when they read something they don’t like. But Fedasiuk and others argue that there is something more sinister at play on a large scale – also, in Fedasiuk’s speech words“a strategy for seizing the power of international discourse”.

What trolls do

Independent researchers estimated in 2015 that the Russian “Internet Research Agency”. he had an estimate 400 staff members working 12-hour shifts, with 80 trolls dedicated only to disrupting the US political system. This happens on every social media platform and in the comment threads of major news sites, with every imaginable form of disinformation, including “fake fact-checking videos.”

According to a former worker, these efforts are carefully managed by supervisors “obsessed” with page views, posts, clicks and traffic. Lyudmila Savchuk described go undercover in a Russian troll factory that attracted young workers with even higher pay than doctors. She remembered work shifts during which she was required to fulfill a quota of five political assignments, 10 non-political assignments, and 150 to 200 comments on posts by other trolls. Employees received lessons in English grammar and were encouraged to watch American media. Since each troll can create and monitor many different accounts, it becomes a numbers game to see which one will grow the most and have the most influence.

Most of us have seen social media as a place to share family photos, inspirational quotes, or cat memes. Imagine just for a moment if you quit your job and devoted yourself full time to spreading distrust and sowing discord in a rival nation.

What could – just you alone – accomplish?

What the trolls want

When the Russian assault on Ukraine began, Russian troll farms shifted their focus there. Like reported from ProPublica, a troll account shared a video of “someone standing in front of rows of dark gray body bags that appeared to be filled with dead bodies. As he spoke to the camera, one of the bodies penned up behind him raised his arms to keep the top of the bag from flying off.

What viewers don’t realize is that it originally came from a climate change demonstration in Vienna, Austria. But the troll tweeted: “Even propaganda makes mistakes, one of the corpses came back to life just as they were counting the deaths of Ukrainian civilians.”

Right on cue, another account tweeted the same video. “I’M SCREAMING!” with two others sharing the same histrionic video, “Ukrainian propaganda does not sleep”.

TikTok appears to be a particularly friendly place for troll-gathering, according to one analysis by researchers Clemson and ProPublica which found more than 250 million views on posts promoting Russian state media and vilifying President Joe Biden.

Wherever troll farms are located, they all work to advance their financier’s favored narrative and to undermine the viability and credibility of competing viewpoints. This means harassing researchers, journalists and citizens who dare to raise a dissenting voice, or even simply drawing attention to the trolls themselves.

Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro was harassed online after publishing a story based on interviews with workers at a troll factory in St. Petersburg. Three people were later convicted by a court in Helsinki on charges of defamation and negligence.

Beyond ensuring the dominance of their favorite narrative, these efforts typically aim for other outcomes as well: expanding fear, eroding trust in institutions, sowing discord, and inciting unrest.

How to spot a troll

Now let’s move on to the hardest question of all: how do you spot a troll?

In all great spy novels, the plot hinges on the double agent maintaining the cover; this is also crucial for trolls. But there are some telltale signs that you’re seeing a troll at work.

For example, how Twitter has confirmedTrolls tend to have very few, if any, social media followers. And beware of noble sounding usernames”truth seeker.”

According to an analysis by Clemson University and ProPublica, troll posts appear at defined times consistent with the IRA business day; they retire on Russian holidays and weekends, reflecting the regularity of working hours. Additionally, there are often nearly identical texts, photos, and videos evident across various accounts and platforms.

However, if you’re having trouble figuring it out, don’t feel bad. Even our spy agencies have a hard time. Earlier this summer, the US State Department announced large sums of cash rewards – up to $10 million – for people willing to leak information.

In lieu of any of the more obvious smoking guns, I believe we have to trust some of the more obvious intuitive models. For example, similar to how you might spot a hit piece in journalism, ask yourself: Does this person seem completely distraught? Are they sharing “screed” rather than a thoughtful comment i.e. something designed to infuriate? If so, them could be being a real grumpy American, but there’s also the possibility that they live somewhere else and get paid to post.

Another obvious one: Does this post protest something the vast majority of reasonable human beings would likely agree with? Civilization. Kindness. Basic justice. Or how about the troll farms themselves?

I was fascinated to read the comment threads in the growing number of stories about the systematic operations of trolls. Occasionally, you come across someone strangely annoyed that any attention is being paid to the subject — and ready with a clever quip that should convince the rest of us that the whole investigation isn’t worth the time or attention.

But of course it is, especially if we are concerned about the health of our public discourse. And maybe it’s time to think more seriously about who is behind it in particular average comment you see.

Wake up, America. It’s time to stop being fooled.

Jacob Hess is the publisher of Public Square Magazine and a former board member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the release of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also wrote The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.