- Internet & the Web
Internet Trolls Beneath The Bridge - Where They Come From, and Should You Head Butt Them?
When I was a child we didn't have the Internet or even video games, so although it sounds disturbingly primitive now and might make you squirm nervously, we had to amuse ourselves with things called stories. Some of these stories were labeled fairy tales; a genre that, though fanciful, contained allegorical narratives designed to teach a lesson or impart a universal truth. Some of these universal truths were hard to ascertain at the moment but became clearer as we reached adulthood and were exposed to the same Internet that made those quaint, silly, antiquated fairy tales obsolete. Now we learn our universal truths on Facebook by watching people eating in restaurants or taking vacations we can't afford in order to learn the harsh universal truth of I'm poor and you're not, or watching a video of an enormous, foaming at the mouth German Shepherd taking a nap with a litter of cuddly kittens, to learn about the universal truth of tolerance for others that we could easily eat, but choose not to.
One of these fairy tales was called The Billy Goats Gruff. In the Billy Goats Gruff three goats run out of grass and have to cross a bridge to find greener pasture. Nowadays the Goats Gruff would just go to the local dispensary in certain states, but those were harder times. Underneath that bridge lived an evil troll. In the post Internet world everybody knows what a troll is, but when I was a kid listening to this story I remember scratching my head and not being able to visualize a troll, so I had to accept that it must be something hideous and frightening. Anyhow, the first two goats gruff cross the bridge and avoid being eaten by telling the troll that there is a bigger, tastier goat following them who will make a better meal. Finally the third goat comes along, one who doesn't afraid of anything, and simply head butts that annoying troll off of the bridge, where the monster wallows around in the water and doesn't bothering anybody, ever again. Of course I didn't realize it at the time in the pre-Internet, pre Internet meme world, but this was simply a nicer way of saying that the goat unfriended the troll.
How was is that this evil troll; a savage ogre that seemed so undaunted, impassable, and terrifying thumping his chest mightily there atop the bridge, was so easily defeated? Are we really expected to believe in this wiser, more sophisticated post fairy tale world that one head butt into the water caused him to stay down there in the dark muck beneath the bridge, licking his wounds and renouncing goat meat forever, possibly becoming a vegan because of the humiliating experience? I like to think that the troll drifted downstream and found another bridge, one with more gullible goats who were easily convinced that being eaten by a troll was in their best interest. That is certainly what happens to the trolls we know today, who don't give up so easy, many times because they are being paid to eat gullible Internet goats and won't forego losing a payday because of trivial things like telling the truth, adhering to ethical principles, or respecting their fellow Internet users.
So this article explores the troubling questions of where Trolls really come from, should we be frightened of them, and should we expend the energy to head butt them off of our own Internet bridges, or simply walk on past?
Who (What) Are Trolls, and Where Do They Come From?
A simple definition for Internet Troll, formulated by the brilliant scholars at Indiana University - who get paid to surf the Internet and come up with profound conclusions about all the crap they find there, is as follows "...a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people..." Trolls definitely can be upsetting, but not all trolls stir the pot of goat meat for the sake of stirring the pot. I have no doubt that some trolls are sincere, that some are truly ideologically committed to the causes that they passionately defend. A handful, or maybe a thimbleful, really want to steer the confused, befuddled and misguided in an ideologically purer direction; to bring eyesight to the blind. Yes, a few trolls sincerely like to eat goat stew, even though most civilized beings wriggle our noses at the thought of such an unsavory, odiferous repast.
Some trolls are simply computer savvy teenagers doing what teenagers do best; making life miserable for everyone. As an example, the notorious 4chan site has been a hangout for disgruntled but clever troll youths who, if they had been doing their homework rather than bothering people, would probably be running their own Silicon Valley tech companies instead of pathetically wallowing in misery in their mothers' basements. Many trolls target video games relentlessly, leading the gullible and naive to their doom in some dark gaming dungeon. There are trolls in technical forums who deliberately give false information to the cyber-challenged who seek help there. In general, the types of Internet trolling that have been categorized by supposed experts in the field, who are probably also trolls themselves, are 1.) abusive and rude comments, 2.) creating controversial arguments, 3.) ridiculous self aggrandizement and conceit, and 4.) off topic attacks, which means spamming a post with comments that have nothing to do with the issue being discussed.
Many habitual Internet users; those who frequent chat rooms, online forums, Facebook threads, etc., were often puzzled by the quick and unrelenting frequency with which Internet trolls were able to respond to posts that conflicted with their fanatical political beliefs. Do these people have a life? Do these people have a job? - participants in online discussions would ask themselves, puzzling over how these seemingly omnipotent, omnipresent hobgoblins could respond so rapidly to every contrary comment.
As it turns out, many Internet trolls do have jobs, jobs that bring home a steady paycheck - an honest income, one might say, if it wasn't for the sleazy, underhanded source of that money. In June of 2013, National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden released copied documents that presented troubling but revealing glimpses into how the governments of the United States of America and the United Kingdom spy on, and covertly influence the political opinions of their citizens; in many cases by using your friendly neighborhood trolls.
The reporting of Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's media contact...
...highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses...namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.— Glenn Greenwald
Astroturfing and More
Ha! As if there was any integrity on the Internet to begin with.
Besides the questionable, somewhat laughable reference to Internet integrity, there are some legitimate concerns that the Snowden documents address. One such insidious technique identified in those pages, one used by governments, corporations, and political parties to influence Internet content, is known as astroturfing. According to alternet.org, an astroturf campaign is one "...is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilizations, but which has in reality been organized." In other words, suppose I write a post critical of US military involvement in the Middle East. This incites a flood of comments questioning my patriotism, written by people pretending to support American intervention in the region, on the grounds that the United States is protecting freedom at home by killing terrorists abroad. If these critics are not really flag wavers with a strong belief in the right of America to project its military power overseas, but instead are being paid by a government agency, or perhaps a weapons manufacturer seeking to sell arms to the government, then this would be an example of astroturfing. Astroturfing certainly falls within the Greenwald criteria above as being a method "...to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse."
Astroturf, by the way, is a type of fake grass once popular in sports facilities and this, perhaps not coincidentally, leads us back to our Billy Goats Gruff story. Our innocent Goats Gruff could conceivably chew on and digest this fake grass without any immediately observable ill effects, but over the long term it could lead to toxic build up and sick goats.
In regard to the "honey trap" troll technique mentioned above, I always wondered why so many hot chicks try to friend me on Facebook. Fortunately I am not a vain man, I don't have an exaggerated or deluded sense of my appeal to what appear to be, by their profiles, women in their late teens and early twenties. I might have friended one of these lovely ladies back in the beginning, simply because I was new to Facebook and trying to find an audience, but I became suspicious when further voluptuous beauties tried to friend me - a graying, paunchy middle aged man with no money. Yes, in my own secret fantasy world I still fancy myself a stud muffin, but come on - what business would an attractive 20 something have with an eroded, graying, penniless slob like me? Fortunately I didn't fall into the honey trap, but sex sells. The weakness of the flesh makes honey trapping effective even though, in all likelihood, the "honies" attempting to extort silence out of those who might be critical of government and corporate polices are really just bald men with bad breath, using photos of attractive women as bait.
Hilary Clinton and Astroturfing - From Baghdad to Dubuque
Not surprisingly, Astroturfing is rearing its ugly head in the 2016 United States Presidential election cycle. Although I am quite certain that all candidates reach deep into the war chest to try to win the all important social media battles, sometimes by less than ethical means, there have been so many accusations made in the media against Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton in particular that the apparent pattern raises the question of whether her millions of devoted followers really exist at all, or are they just paid creations of her campaign machine?
In the battleground state of Iowa, Hilary's detractors claim she buses supporters to her rallies in advance, after first "vetting" them to make sure they will ask the right softball questions, shout the right slogans, and applaud on cue. Her "casual" meet and greets with the people of the heartland are allegedly staged from beginning to end. So-called "grassroots" Tweeters have been mobilized to attend "pro-Hilary" training sessions. Her opponent Bernie Sanders has been heckled at events by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists funded by billionaire George Soros, who also is an important Clinton campaign supporter. In her first Presidential run in 2007, Ms. Clinton was caught using paid trolls to comment on blog sites. Four or five of these "grassroots" trolls were found hunkering down under the same bridge; posting from the same IP address identified with the Clinton campaign, within minutes of one another. Trapped red-handed trying to muck up the goat meat, a Clinton aide blamed the embarrassing incident on "over-eager staffers and volunteers."
A report in the Daily Mail revealed that 2 million out of Hilary's 3.6 million Twitter followers are fake or inactive accounts. Her official Facebook account lists 685,000 followers, 46,000 of whom name Baghdad, Iraq as their hometown. Hilary cannot buy votes in Baghdad, which is outside the United States for some of the geographically-impaired out there who were wondering, but she can certainly buy all the likes and retweets that she desires there. Social media marketing firms sell likes by the Iraqi crude oil barrel full - the likers consisting of low paid workers toiling away in "click farms." $400 dollars will buy 10,000 followers down on the farm, 100 bucks will purchase 1,000 retweets, $300 will get 10,000 Facebook likes. All of this is old hat for Hilary - in 2013 Clinton's State Department spent $630,000 buying Facebook fans. The US State department was especially popular in Cairo, Egypt. Your tax dollars working for you.
Even though Hilary Clinton might not be the ugly troll thumping its hairy, splotched, leathery chest atop your Internet bridge in an attempt to frighten away your timid goats, she is definitely the Queen of the Trolls hiding in the darkness beneath, directing activity and keeping the pot warm for any stray kid, billy or nanny that might be lured below.
More About Troll Tactics, and Should I Head-Butt?
So, as it turns out, that hideous and annoying little troll - the one that has been stalking your every click and comment, haunting you from the dank bowels of the fetid water beneath your once cheery cyber bridge as it chews on the roots of grass for nourishment, might not really be out to get you after all. It could be that it's nothing personal between you and it - your troll is simply a soldier of fortune out on a search and destroy mission to dispose of whoever the CEO, candidate, or government agent signing the paycheck requires.
The troll's job is basically to scare you into backing off. The troll wants to silence you into submission. The intention of the troll is not so much to dissuade you from your beliefs as it is to wear you down - to make you think twice before posting another article or blog post that is contrary to its paid for world view. The key to success as a troll is to simply yell louder and longer than the other guy.
The troll claims to be troubled by your lack of original thinking. Of course, the troll's thinking is dictated by the opinions of journalist or talk show host talking heads, but the troll cites these borrowed ideas as if they were uniquely its own. Trolls have a keen, practiced way of deflecting your point; they use the word "gainsay" a lot to sound really smart, to appear as if they have thoroughly destroyed your opinion without actually having done so. For example, if you say "billionaires enjoy enormous taxpayer bailouts," the troll might come back with something like "but the bottom 45 percent of wage earners don't pay taxes." This doesn't really address the issue of whether billionaires get bailouts or not and whether that is good or bad, but it has the effect of tongue-tying the opposition as it searches for a response to an issue that wasn't even on the board.
The troll is quick to tag you as a "humorless liberal," but then will resist any attempts at light-hearted, conciliatory banter, perhaps believing that what you have could be contagious, and it is best to keep a proper distance.
The troll will rapidly pounce on your fat finger spelling errors, probably made on a tiny phone used by aging, blurry eyes like mine - and will flaunt your misspelled words or accidental grammatical miscues as proof of your complete imbecility and ignorance.
The key to success in battling the troll is not to give in to it. The mistake to be avoided is to head-butt that nasty troll off of your bridge. Unfriending or unfollowing the troll makes you look like a sissy, as does reporting the troll to the site administration, an action which should be avoided except in the cases of threatening or obscene posts. Deleting or tattle-telling are small victories for the troll, giving them the moral high ground because you obviously do not believe in free speech, whereas in the troll's deluded fantasy world it does.
Stand up to the troll. Take your time, carefully dissect the troll's words and expose the logical fallacies they contain. You are safe behind the Great Anonymous Wall of the Internet. If it takes you three days to come up with an appropriate and clever response, take the time. This is not a face to face debate that requires immediate responses. Try to befriend the troll - sometimes this reduces the amount of noxious smoke bellowing out of its misshapen nostrils, or sets the ugly beast off balance. Or simply ignore the troll, pretend that it doesn't exist, pretend that you don't see its foul leavings littering your comments section.
Trolls are bullies. If you resist their bombastic brow beatings, eventually they will go away and look for easier targets. Don't let them block your cyber-bridge - the grass is deliciously, delicately green there on the other side and you have the right to graze where you want, unimpeded by hairy, smelly, sweaty, loudmouth cyber-fiends.