What is a troll farm and what do trolls do on the internet? | Opinion
When was the last time you were reading the comments on a great article and then came across this guy? You know, the unapproachable one who launches into a blistering tirade—about the subject or author—that includes all sorts of playground insults, things we were told not to say in kindergarten.
Have you ever considered that the person wasn’t really crazy? And in fact, it might not even be “real”?
Most of us like to assume the best of people, even people we just come across on the internet. But a disturbingly large number of hateful comments and posts on social media come from “trolls” — not the kind in the “Lord of the Rings” movies or the miniature creatures with colorful hair, but people who are paid to sway public opinion. manipulate. (Actually, the word troll in this context is a derivative of “troller” and has been used since the 1990s to describe people fishing for an argument on the Internet.)
Few appreciate the extent of “troll farms” operating in Russia and at least 29 other governments worldwide. These “keyboard armies” operate for different reasons within each country, but they all do at least two things: spread propaganda favorable 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 report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee. But it wasn’t until after the 2016 election that the general public started paying attention. A Justice Department indictment filed in 2018 suggests that hundreds of paid Russian trolls run these campaigns thanks to annual budgets in the millions. And before the 2020 election, their work reached an estimated 140 million Americans per month.
Ryan Fedasiuk, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies, writing the most detailed study of Internet trolls operating in China, says the effort there is “much larger than previously reported” — with 2 million paid employees which publishes almost 450 million posts every year.
These are large-scale efforts to “distract the public and change the subject” from serious questions, according to a 2017 report by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of California.
Of course, legitimate questions have been raised about similar kinds of pressure in our own country — albeit different in scope and content — especially as we learn more about how the U.S. government has affected moderation standards on social media during the pandemic.
What is clear, however, is that some governments are not content to influence only their own citizens. Twitter said it had shut down tens of thousands of troll accounts 2020 alone and even more “amplifier” accounts that seek to extend the trolling account’s influence.
Of course, governments have always sought influence through whatever medium is popular at the time, and this practice is not always unethical. For example, the first Voice of America broadcasts were designed to combat Nazi propaganda during World War II. And some Internet trolls are exactly what they appear to be: angry people who blow off steam when they read something they don’t like. But Fedasiuk and others argue that there is something more sinister at play on a grand scale — even, in Fedasiuk’s words, “a strategy to seize international discourse power.”
What trolls do
Independent researchers estimated in 2015 that the Russian “Internet Research Agency” had an estimated 400 staff working 12-hour shifts, with 80 trolls dedicated to disrupting the American political system alone. It’s happening 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 who are “obsessed” with page views, posts, clicks and traffic. Lyudmila Savchuk described being sheltered at a Russian troll factory that lured young workers with even higher salaries than doctors’. She recalls work shifts during which she had to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 non-political posts and 150 to 200 comments on other trolls’ posts. Employees were given English grammar lessons and 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 biggest and have the most influence.
Most of us have seen social media as a place to share family photos, inspirational quotes or cat memes. Just imagine for a moment if you quit your job and devoted yourself full-time to spreading mistrust and sowing discord in a rival nation.
What could you – only you – achieve?
What trolls want
When the Russian attack on Ukraine began, Russian troll farms shifted their focus there. As reported by ProPublica, one troll account shared a video of “someone standing in front of rows of dark gray body bags that appeared to be filled with corpses. As he spoke to the camera, one of the shrouded bodies behind him raised his arms to stop the top of the bag from blowing away.”
What viewers don’t realize is that it originally came from a climate change demonstration in Vienna, Austria. But the troll tweeted, “Propaganda also makes mistakes, one of the corpses came back to life when they counted the dead of Ukraine’s civilians.”
Down the road, another account tweeted the same video. “I YELL!” with two more sharing the same video with histrionics, “Ukrainian propaganda doesn’t sleep.”
TikTok appears to be a particularly friendly place for trolls to harvest, according to an analysis by Clemson researchers and ProPublica that found more than 250 million views on posts promoting Russian state media and disparaging President Joe Biden.
Wherever they are located, troll farms all work to advance their funder’s preferred narrative and to undermine the viability and credibility of competing viewpoints. That means harassing researchers, journalists, and citizens who dare to raise a dissenting voice—or even simply calling attention to the trolls themselves.
Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro was harassed online after she published a story based on interviews with workers at a troll factory in St. Petersburg. Three persons were later found guilty by a court in Helsinki on charges of defamation and negligence.
In addition to ensuring the dominance of their preferred narrative, these efforts also typically aim for other outcomes: expanding fear, eroding trust in institutions, sowing discord, and inciting unrest.
How to spot a troll
Now to the hardest question of all: How do you spot a troll?
In all the great espionage novels, the plot depends on the double agent maintaining their cover; it is also critical for trolls. But there are some tell-tale signs that you’re seeing a troll at work.
For example, if Twitter confirmed, trolls tend to have very few, if any, followers on social media. And watch out for noble-sounding usernames “truth seeker.”
According to an analysis by Clemson University and ProPublica, troll posts appear at specific times that correspond to the IRA workday; they go off during Russian holidays and on weekends, reflecting regularity in work schedules. In addition, there is often almost identical text, photos and videos on multiple accounts and platforms.
Still, if you find it difficult, don’t feel bad. Even our spy agencies have it tough. Earlier this summer, the US State Department announced large sums of reward money – up to $10 million – for people willing to leak information.
Instead of any more obvious smoking gun, I believe we should trust some of the more obvious intuitive patterns. For example, similar to how you might spot a hit piece in journalism, ask yourself: does this person sound completely indifferent? Are they sharing “screed” rather than a thoughtful comment – that is, something designed to infuriate? If so, them may be a real grumpy American, but there’s also a chance they might live somewhere else and get paid to post.
Another obvious one: is this post protesting something that the vast majority of reasonable people are likely to agree on? Citizenship. Friendliness. Basic justice. Or how about, troll farms themselves?
I was fascinated to read the comment threads in the growing number of stories about systematic trolling operations. Every now and then you come across someone strangely annoyed that the subject is being given any attention at all – and ready with a clever joke that’s supposed to convince the rest of us that the whole investigation isn’t worth the time or attention not.
But it is natural – especially if we care about the health of our public discourse. And maybe it’s time to think more seriously about who is behind it in particular mean comment you see.
Wake up, America. It’s time to stop being played.
Jacob Hess is the editor 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 publishing “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.”