Posted by Kim on October 14, 2020, 9:00amThis 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/
- "Disinformation" Is The Word of the Year -- And A Sign of What's To Come
- That Uplifting Tweet You Just shared? A Russian Troll Sent It
- What Is the Internet Research Agency?
- Can you spot a Twitter troll? Test yourself with this interactive
- Check list for spotting fake news
- More resources on spotting fake news, and even fake news videos
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.