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Bots, Trolls and Cyborgs, OH MY!

Posted by Kim on October 14, 2020, 9:00am

This is the second in a series of three posts on media literacy and healthy social media habits. See the first, "The Truth is Out There," here.

When it comes to posting disinformation on social media, there are people out there who aren’t just making an occasional mistake; there are professional trolls who spread misinformation for a living.

Gone are the days when "trolling" just meant a kind of mean person looking to provoke negative reactions for a cheap laugh. At least 30 governments worldwide - including Russia, South Korea, Macedonia, Turkey, and the Philippines - keep standing armies of keyboard warriors, whose entire job is to spread propaganda, harass journalists and whistleblowers, and erode trust in the mainstream media (in order to make it harder to counter the disinformation they are trying to promote.) These are often referred to as "troll farms," or "troll factories," and they are a modern day plague on the internet - and on free society as a whole.

These professional trolls use a wide variety of tactics to spread their misinformation, such as:
  • creating hordes of fake social media profiles, designed to trick people into thinking they are talking to someone who very well might be their neighbor - the Kremlin’s troll farm actually sent operatives on "field trips" to the US in order to take photos of models in small town locations, to make their profile photos as convincingly authentic as possible. Often, a single professional troll will run dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of social media accounts. Some will be largely bot driven, some will be bot assisted (cyborg trolls) and a very few will be run entirely with a human touch.
  • creating fake news websites, that may appear to be legitimate news sources, but publish highly biased or outright fake news stories. The fake social media accounts are then used to get these fake articles popularized to the point that real people take notice and start sharing them organically.
  • curating existing content. This often looks like a youtube, instagram, facebook page or other profile that reposts or repackages content that resonates with a specific group of people. For example, one channel might be devoted to posting inspirational messages, or messages that resonate with a certain political group or interest, or astrological horoscopes and readings, even comedic content - the really "good" professional trolls have been known to run innocent seeming curation accounts for years in order to build up a following that trusts their tastes; and then, when a key moment in the country they target arrives - such as an election - they start slipping in carefully targeted divisive content in order to anger or demotivate their audience.
Unlike the lone trolls who taunt and pick fights online, professional trolls go out looking to make friends. They attempt to make their target audiences trust them, like them, identify with them, believe in them. They want you on their side. They want you to feel like those little drops of misinformation you’re getting came from a friend who would not lie to you. In some ways, they are engaged in a form of interest-group cat fishing.

And professional trolls are good at it. So good that they have been found to have organized protests and sometimes even counter protests of the original protests that they create, where the participants who showed up didn’t even know that both events had been dreamed up by another country’s troll farms.

Why do they do this? Many different reasons, but often, the end goal is to create a feeling of disgust and demotivation in targeted country’s citizens, and to create a sort of chaos that makes the democratic process ever more difficult.

So what can you do? Here are a few things you can keep an eye out for:
  • Many bots never bother to set a profile image, but when they do, they very often use pictures of attractive women. Do a reverse image search on the account profile picture. Are there a ton of accounts using that same photo? Is it a stock photo? Is it a stolen photo from a real person’s social media account?
  • Follow the steps in our previous news post about checking a meme or news article for misinformation. If a lot of what is shared turns out to be false or heavily misleading, that’s suspicious.
  • Does the person in question never seem to post about anything in real life, like what they had for lunch or how annoyed they are with their cat for breaking a dish? Just purely some hyper-specific aspect of politics? Suspicious.
  • Does the person in question have long silences, then suddenly fire out a ton of posts in a very short period of time?
  • Does the person in question ever share anything original, or do they simply reblog or retweet other people’s content? If a majority of the person’s posts are just retweets without any comment or mentions of other accounts, this may be part of a tactic used to get to the most Popular tab on Twitter, in order to create the impression that this is what the majority thinks.

None of these points alone mean that you’re dealing with a bot account or a professional troll, but more than one together raises the likelihood. Listen to your gut, and be cautious.

Want to practice your bot and professional troll spotting skills? Take this fun test: https://spotthetroll.org/


More information:
Remember, if you're wanting to discuss politics, we have a US politics group set up here. Please keep it off the public forums so that folks who are looking for escapism on the RPR can get it.

Comments

Rogue-Scribe

October 15, 2020
7:08pm

The link to the list of countries is behind a paywall, but I’m pretty sure the USA should be on any list of this sort.

The CIA has been interfering with elections and internal affairs of other nations with disinformation and financial support for factions that would further the U.S. cause since their inception, so it’s no surprise that the tables have been turned some these days.

It’s good to be aware and to check sources, drilling down a few layers into the deep cover before sharing ‘news’. Thanks for the information!

Kim

October 15, 2020
9:03am

@MangoNekros Although it's doubtful we've got a lot of professional trolls in this community right now, I felt it was important to provide some information on this as none of us spend 100% of our online time only on the RPR. :)

Queen_Knight

October 15, 2020
8:07am

@MangoNekros Some people have nothing to do, some use any site possible to advertise stuff like "Packing and moving company".

MangoNekros

October 15, 2020
7:12am

Why would trolls be snooping around a friendly roleplaying community?

Aine

October 15, 2020
6:50am

Just so you are aware, that link at the top of the article that leads to The Telegraph requires an account there and a "free trial" of a subscription service to read.

Queen_Knight

October 14, 2020
10:40am

@Kim Because every time something happens in U.S they blame Russia. I am aware that such trolls exist i mean they exist in pretty much every country. At this point i see all this as "The boy who cried wolf" so that's why i commented on it. On another note it's a good thing that people become more aware that not everything they see and read is true.

Kim

October 14, 2020
10:10am

@Queen_Knight Why does that strike you as suspicious? Russia has one of the first and largest troll factory operations. From Spot the Troll's about:
Quote:
While fake accounts are created for a variety of reasons, the troll accounts and posts in this quiz have all been linked to Vladimir Putin’s troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, based in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Many foreign and domestic actors, however, have learned from the Russians and have begun to use some of their tactics. These include operations in Iran, China, and around the globe. Learning to understand Russian trolls will help you understand others.

Queen_Knight

October 14, 2020
9:52am

I tried out this little test "to spot a troll" and each time "Troll" account was "Made in Russia" kinda looks fishy to me.

MangoNekros

October 14, 2020
9:36am

Is it mean that I feel weary whenever there is a user who just friends everyone for no apparent reason?