Saturday, January 3, 2015

Russian Troll Farms

Online forums seem to have a lot of trolls as of late, hyping Russian accomplishments and re-writing history.   What is going on here?   Are there others making organized efforts to troll like this?  Sadly, the answer is yes.

Since the days of Usenet (when young nerds would get on primitive computer "terminals" and argue about Star Trek) there have been trolls.   I wonder who the first troll was - perhaps it occurred by accident.  Someone made a typo and it started a shit-storm on the Internet.   And then people figured out that if you say outlandish things, you can get attention.

But then again, this sort of thing probably started long before the Internet.

Today, trolling has gone pro, as I noted before.   Trolling isn't just done to "get a reaction" but instead to create background noise - a Greek Chorus if you will - of commentary, designed to subtly shape public opinion.  Trolling is one reason I have disabled comments on this blog.   While I get a few helpful comments, mostly I just get trolling.

What is the point of this trolling?  Well, to sell something - either a political idea, or a jet-ski - to the plebes.   During this last election, the Chorus was chanting, "Obama is bad" over and over again.   This started to resonate with people, and started showing up in polls.   The news media reports the polls and the entire thing bootstraps itself.

Of course, since the GOP took control of the Senate, things have gotten so much better.   Gas is now down to under $3 a gallon.  Unemployment is down to less than 6%.   The deficit is now less than 3% of GDP.   Inflation is at near-zero levels and the prime rate is at 3%.   You see, if you just vote Republican, our economic problems can all be solved!   And they did all this in just one week!   Imagine if they could control the White House, too!

(The scary thing is, some folks will read that last paragraph and think I am being serious.   Still others will read it and believe it to be true.   That is the nature of the Internet, where context is routinely stripped from text.   While the GOP won seats in the Senate, they have yet to take office and have accomplished nothing as of yet.   They will, however, take credit for accomplishments that preceded them.)

There are a number of folks out there who are professional trolls.   Actually, there are organizations of such trolls, it appears, based on the number of identical comments spread across the Internet.   And when you see which direction these trolls are headed, well, it isn't hard to believe that there is organization behind this.

1.  Russian Trolls:

This series of threads, for example, on a paranoid conspiracy site (nominally posted to by "patriotic Americans" who see through the conspiracy!) tells of Ukrainian atrocities and military action - against the poor, defenseless Russians.  Go onto any YouTube video about the former Soviet Union (particularly anything relating to their military) and you see delusional postings about how the Soviet Union and its technology was actually superior to the West - but of course failing to explain why the entire country collapsed.

For example, this video about the Russian Submarine Kursk - which sank due to incompetence, lack of proper maintenance, and a reliance on a very unstable torpedo fuel that exploded.   The comments section is chock full of conspiracy theories - that the submarine was actually rammed by a smaller American sub (which mysteriously, escaped unscathed).  Other comments on similar sites, laud the superior technology of the Soviet Union (talk about delusional!) and how great Russia was - or is.

These comments would seem like harmless fun, except that they echo the feelings of many Germans between the wars - that Germany was in fact better than any other country, and but for being "sold out" would have won WW I.   It is dangerous thinking - rewriting history.

It is hard to parse who the audience for these things are.   The posting on an American conspiracy site is an odd one - and yet there appear to be a lot of conservatives in this country who are secret admirers of Vladimir Putin (Fox News being chock full of them).   What ever happened to the "Evil Empire"?   Oh, right, that was from that liberal RINO, Ronald Reagan.

Again, the purpose of these trolls is not to convince people on individual arguments, but to create background noise - and sow doubt (good old FUD again).  Maybe it was a collision with another sub - and not Russian incompetence.  And hey, they did have a lot of neat tech, right?   Right?

UPDATE:  This poorly worded article describes what it is like to work in a Russian Troll Factory.

2.  GOP Trolls (And Democratic Trolls):  These are not hard to spot.  They don't offer political arguments, but instead just disparaging name-calling or insane political theories.   They call Obama "o-BUM-a" and no matter what the topic, tie it in to politics.   You post a video about cute kittens, and they chime in, "Well, thanks to o-BUM-a those kittens are not as cute as they could be!"

But of course, some left-wing nutjob chimes in with, "Well, those kittens could be cuter, if it wasn't for all those Wall-Street Fat Cats!"

It is just insane.   Again, the idea is to create a general background noise.   You are supposed to feel bad about Obama.  And you are supposed to feel that he is "unpopular" - that is just a given.   

On the flip side, anyone with more than $5 in the bank is just plain evil (except of course, for George Soros or David Geffen).   You should hate the "rich" because you are not "one of them" even though you have two SUVs parked in your driveway.

4.  Al Qaeda Trolls:   How do 15-year-old girls "self radicalize?"   The answer is simple:  Someone radicalized them.   Just as pedophiles go online and try to "groom" youngsters and arrange for liaisons, professional trolls go to online forums and glorify terrorism as a defense of Islam and a religious duty.

This particular type of troll illustrates how easy it is to influence public opinion online - or even the opinions of an individual.

And again, it was not one single posting that convinced these kids (and young adults) to drop everything, leave the most prosperous countries in the world, and travel to a violent, war-torn part of the world to be slave-brides to terrorists.   It was a collection of background noise.   You get them  to believe that the war on terror is a war on Islam (that is just a given, right?  The background noise) and then you amplify this with urban legends, skewed views of events, and outright lies and distortions.

Pretty soon, a bored suburban teen is thinking how exciting it will be to be sold off to the highest bidder in a refugee camp in Syria.  Some fun!

You start to see how trolling can have a corrosive effect on individuals.   Are you being trolled?  More on that, later.

5. Nazi Trolls:  It is illegal in Germany to display Nazi symbols or to advocate Nazi ideals.   But online, it is a different story.   Hitler was just misunderstood.   And he did take Germany out of a depression and put it back on its feet again, right?  This is, of course, just insanity.  He murdered millions of people.

Oh, right, that's all a myth, too.   Again, they are not trying to convince you of any one argument, but instead to make background noise.  To get the nose of the camel in the tent - to get you to think that maybe there might even be a teeny, tiny bit of "another side to the story" when it comes to World War II.

Go on YouTube and watch any video about WW II and you will be assaulted by trolls in the comment section, all lauding what a great guy Hitler was and how the Jews were evil.   It is more than a little disturbing.   You and I might laugh at it, but some impressionable youngster?  Kids love to believe in conspiracy theories as it is - it doesn't take much to push them to radical agendas (hence the popularity of Ayn Rand in college).

We are told, by these trolls, that America was at fault (for not surrendering?) and made huge profits from the war.   We were complicit in Hitler's rise to power.  And after all, we were the "bad guys" for bombing Hiroshima.

Scary as all that might sound, it has great resonance in Japan, where such things are taught in school.  From the Japanese perspective, happy-go-lucky Chinese and Koreans welcomed Japanese troops as "protectors" - not invaders - as they realized they needed someone with racial superiority to rule over them.   Rape of Nanking?   Comfort Women?  Never happened!

Again, this sort of background noise can, over time, erode the truth.   Already we see major media outlets equivocate about World War II.   America is often now painted as the bad guy - or at least complicit in bad acts.  Discussion of the Bataan Death March or the Battle of the Bulge is accompanied by "Well, some American troops may have engaged in atrocities, too."

And there is such a thing as truth, too.   So many people like to say that truth is subjective - which is the first step in watering down ideas and making obscene ideas seem rational.

Background noise.   It works, too!

6.  Financial Trolls:  The background noise here isn't hard to figure out, if you've been reading my blog.  The first and foremost thing the Greek Chorus chants is, "Everyone has debt".  They want to you believe this as a baseline assumption - that being in debt all the time, for all of your life, is a normal and healthy condition, and should not be questioned.

In any debate, first question the premise.   Sadly, most Americans don't realize this, and when someone makes an argument based on an unwritten assumption, Americans tend to swallow the assumption, hook, line, and sinker.  So most folks believe that yes, debt is a normal part of life.   An entire generation of Millennials assume that having staggering student loan debt is just "a mortgage on your life" as one put it.

People just assume that if you want something in life, you borrow the money to do it.   Well, first you ask Sooze Orman if "You're Approved!" for the loan - right?  And you should obsess about your credit score, of course!  And if you want to get ahead, get one of those "cash back" credit cards and start cutting coupons!  Right?

And since we are all so "stressed out" and "living paycheck to paycheck" it just "makes sense" to veg out in front of the TeeVee after work and order a delivery pizza and not bother to balance your checkbook.

That is the "norm" they are trying to sell you.

7.  Troll Trolls:  Troll trolls are the worst kind, of course.  Their whole point in life is to go online and try to throw a stinkbomb into any discussion.  They say outlandish things, just to get someone to react and then go "tee-hee" at the person who reacts to it.

Sadly, troll-trolls are so commonplace now that it is hard to go anywhere online and not see them.   Many fake-news websites exist for the sole purpose of trying to get people to re-post their fake news stories on Facebook - so they can laugh (haw! haw! haw!) or giggle (tee-hee) at people.

Whenever a YouTube video is mentioned on Reddit, the Reddit trolls descend, and populate the comments section with predictable trolls.  One will posit that no matter what the video is about, it is sexist.   Another will troll from a different angle, and so forth.  The goal is to see how many people react to these nonsense postings.

It is sort of like any joke - funny the first time, but after a while, what's the point?  The same joke, told over and over again, isn't funny, except to very small children.

Troll trolls are just very sad people.

* * * 
So, what is the point of all this?  Well, your opinions on things - which you believe are your own, that you came to, after careful consideration of all the "facts" - are really influenced by this constant background noise in day-to-day life.  What television or radio stations you listen to, who your friends are, where you live, and what you read online (or in the papers, magazines, etc.) have a greater impact on you - and us all - that we'd like to think.

As I noted earlier, during the last election, many people expressed disappointment with Obama, and his approval ratings were very low.   Many complained about the economy - which the Republicans were quick to call "the Obama Economy".   But now that the election is over, we see that growth is up a whopping 5% last quarter and that unemployment is down, hiring is up, inflation is down, the stock market is up, interest rates are low and gas is cheaper than ever.

If this is a "down economy" you have to be on drugs.   But we were all sold this idea that somehow Obama was an abject failure - not because of any one thing, but because of a drumbeat of background voices, whispering "Benghazi" or whatever.   Over time, this sort of thing sinks into your soul, unnoticed, and pretty soon you start believing it.

And that is just one example.  It is not hard to figure out what the Russian trolls are up to - or the neo-Nazi ones.   And we certainly know what the financial trolls are after - our wallets.

The best way to avoid this sort of  thing is to simply unplug as much as possible.   Don't watch television - which is a passive, non-interactive medium.   And challenge the premise of any argument you see in the paper or on the Internet.

People are constantly trying to persuade you to adopt ideas that are contrary to your own best interests.

Don't let them in!