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Trolls, Bots & Sock Puppets

March 31, 2017

trolls

Often times movies and TV series are way ahead of the news.  It’s incumbent on screenwriters to be searching in unexplored realms to bring fresh ideas in the form of new story plots to otherwise jaded audiences.  Recently one such occurrence on an episode of “Homeland” revealed such a current insight only to spill over into the news in a very short time.  Considering the lead time to develop a series season and produce the episodes, it is no small feat, indeed, to have been so prescient in their choice.  That episode introduced  the broader American audience to the reality of troll farms and sock puppets.

Ah, “but what is a troll farm?” you ask.  Let’s start with a few simplified explanations.

Troll

A troll is a term used to label a person who invades social media with antagonistic and provocative commentary for the purpose of initiating arguments with witless victims.  Trolls may easily be found on sites like Facebook, Instagram and others.

Bot

A bot is computer code designed to automate the functions of a troll without human direction.

Sock Puppet

A sock puppet is an alias, a false identity designed to obfuscate the true name of a troll.  A single troll can have many sock puppets giving the appearance of many supporters to an idea or argument.

Troll farm

A troll farm is to fake news as a boiler room is to the stock market.  It is a single location with multiple workstations where many trolls work to create fake news and alternative facts. It’s purpose is to disrupt meaningful discussion with disinformation, thereby influencing public opinion, directing it to a favored outcome or by simply creating confusion, thus dividing opposition into weakened fragments.

If you are having trouble reckoning the impact of Russian hackers on the past election, you should think of it in these terms.  Troll farms can consist of thousands of workstations and they can output propaganda daily to unsuspecting audiences who have come to rely on the internet for their source of information. Trolls can use bots to plant fake news and content into the feeds of established news organizations and media.  That is why getting your news from a reliable organization that fact checks content, such as the NY Times or the Washington Post, rather than some newly formed website that fronts for propaganda, is so critical to understanding the events of our time.

Whether fake news or the individual commentary of a sock puppet on Facebook, their effect is pervasive and monumentally influential on the opinions of trusting victims.

Dirty tricks have long been accepted in our elections.  Mudslinging has long been practiced.  Lying and false promises are a recognized form of positioning for candidates. Namecalling has reached a new peak with Donald Trump, but his new form of corruption to political discourse should be seen for what it is, an extension of these detestable practices to a new form of media, one that is more effective because the sources are disguised and made to seem credible.  Worse yet, the trail of responsibility leads to foreign actors outside the reaches of our laws (however weak they may be in this regard) and can only be prosecuted as collusion, a very hard case to make considering the layers of obfuscation.  It’s a lot like trying to prosecute money laundering, or  identity theft through the myriad of international banks and the many separate and nonuniform national laws of the individual countries involved and the perpetrators abroad.

It would help a great deal if first we created new hard and fast ground rules for electoral candidates to follow.

Next, we need to recognize that globalism has many consequences both desirable and undesirable.  Cooperation is needed to resolve the many issues presented by the internet, which, with the exception of North Korea, is a global communication entity.  As long as it exists, global solutions will be required.

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