If you haven’t yet read Adrian Chen’s latest piece on Russian troll farms entitled “The Agency” featured in the New York Times June 2, 2015, I highly recommend it. If you read the language, be sure to check it out in Russian, too.
Troll farms in Russia have a rich history previously little documented. Trolls by their very definition are meant to “spoil” the Internet. Social media are just a few of their tools of digital warfare.
Adrian’s piece studies this phenomenon in a truly nail-biting tale of real world and online sleuthing. It ends with his own case of being set up as a Neo-Nazi supporter in a final assault meant to debase his credibility once the Russian agency became aware of his plans for the front page story. I first studied Russian trolling in my 2011 thesis on the subject for Columbia University. Trolls, at their very best, “get into the head” of their abuse victims.
A few days later, Soshnikov chatted with me on Skype. “Did you see an article about you on FAN?” he asked. “They know you are going to publish a loud article, so they are trying to make you look stupid in front of the Russian audience.”
I explained the setup, and as I did I began to feel a nagging paranoia. The more I explained, the more absurd my own words seemed — the more they seemed like exactly the sort of elaborate alibi a C.I.A. agent might concoct once his cover was blown. The trolls had done the only thing they knew how to do, but this time they had done it well. They had gotten into my head
Thankfully, there are some tell-tale signs of Russian trolling, which are covered in the article that can help most discerning readers separate fact from fiction, especially in the English language.
These techniques of modern warfare aren’t only limited to Russia, either:
As the Internet has grown, the problem posed by trolls has grown more salient even as their tactics have remained remarkably constant. Today an ISIS supporter might adopt a pseudonym to harass a critical journalist on Twitter, or a right-wing agitator in the United States might smear demonstrations against police brutality by posing as a thieving, violent protester. Any major conflict is accompanied by a raging online battle between trolls on both sides.
This June 10, 2015 piece, “Russian Propaganda Kills” at RFE/RL also provides a well-rounded picture of the current state of warfare caused by Russian trolls.
Today digital publications such as RFE/RL, StopFake.org and many others have started to document the very real acts of deceit and abuse that Russian trolls carry out on an hourly basis and whose targets reach far around the globe.
As groups like ISIS and other inherently troll driven organizations like Russia’s Internet Agency continue to wage warfare on Twitter and beyond, the best solution is awareness building and careful understanding of one’s digital “surroundings.” A strong culture of technological security is what we need to ensure our future safety and sanity online.