Poisoned Fruit in the Walled Garden - Part II

Globally, the right wing troll community is made up of people who have plenty of money, power and privilege... or a combination of all three. (Photo via DailyStormer.com)

Master of Sock Puppets

The Alt-Right might be in the spotlight now, but its efforts to manipulate public opinion are likely overshadowed by the efforts of another group of trolls, whose mission it is to promote a slightly less offensive - but still conservative - worldview: those who work for the military and government.

Many people will by now be familiar with JTRIG, China's 50-cent party, or the Kremlin’s “troll factories”. These monikers all refer to shadowy government intelligence units that are presumed to be spreading pro-establishment propaganda across Internet forums, worldwide. A number of leaked top-secret documents and budget statements over the years have alluded to the existence and purpose of such units:

Reporters who have gone undercover in Moscow's troll factories have shown that employees there use methods which are nearly identical to those of the Alt-Right as they strive to control public dialogue on the Internet. They create multiple fake identities and post hundreds of copy-pasted comments around public forums each day. Ex-trolls who have come forward to talk about such units have said that their posts tend to be quite hateful in nature - presumably, to intimidate Internet users with opposing views into silence.  

These units clearly attempt to foster an illusion that there is a public consensus around certain issues - a consensus which is right wing and totalitarian. Aside from using broken English, the views posted by these trolls tends to be anti-democratic, anti-immigration, anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist and pro-capitalist. They are, in a nutshell, speaking up in support the ruling parties' own views.

In 2011 it was revealed that the U.S. military's Central Command, or Centcom, had signed a contract with a company known as NTrepid to 'manage online personas' for its staff.  NTrepid's software would enable every serviceman and woman to create and use up to 10 fake online aliases worldwide.  The Guardian reported that:  'The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".'

Since the phrase 'sophisticated adversaries' is left undefined, it could just as easily refer to anyone, from an informed citizen with a solid argument that goes against the status quo, to a nutter wanting to lob a grenade into a shopping arcade.

The problem with most government units is that they use terms like 'terrorist' and 'extremist' interchangeably. Terms that are so badly defined that countless peaceful people  - from college union activists to environmentalist leaf letters, to journalists who have helped to break these leaks to the public - have been targeted in the name of national security. So it's hardly reassuring when the government creates a unit whose activities are aimed at getting those undefined 'targets' to 'conform'. Targets of what? Conformity to whose ideals?

And if people are being cajoled, misled or bullied by trolls into conforming to the government line on a policy,  doesn't that amount to taking away their free will to decide?

What is worrying is the underlying presumption that the government is perfect as is; that its policies need to be defended from change.  Seen from that standpoint, even voting is a threat because it allows the public a fleeting chance to alter the status quo... which is, of course, flawless.

Centcom, predictably, has stated that it cannot reveal what these fake online personas are being used for.  They say it's classified, but since they're only allowed to use their technology overseas, we shouldn't worry.  Sure.  But what about all the people overseas with a right wing agenda, who plan similar operations over here?!  In a time when the Internet has broken down almost all international borders, saying that 'we only work overseas' does not inspire that much confidence.
Like the Alt-Right, these trolls tend to use personal insults and abuse as a way of derailing arguments that threaten to become too intellectual or balanced.

A New York Times feature on Kremlin trolls featured a local Moscow activist who went undercover in one such trolling operation. She claimed she had to work two 12-hour days in a row each week and she was expected to post hundreds of comments on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter during each shift:

“Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.” 

The above tactics will sound all too familiar to anybody that's observed the Alt Right in action. For instance, its oft-repeated claims that members of the left wing are 'just as bad', - meaning, as corrupt, murderous or violent - as members of its own neo-Nazi ranks are. These claims are often backed up by made-up events, such as the Bowling Green Massacre.

Although no officials have yet openly admitted that pro-government trolling operations exist, such operations have been exposed across the English speaking world, and as far afield as Sweden and Mexico. 

Unfortunately, the growing mountain evidence for the existence of government-sponsored trolling operations mainly comes to us via unofficial channels. What does come through, however, provides us with a startling glimpse of the lengths that the government and big business are willing to go to to game public opinion in its favour.

Changing the market, not the product

At some point in every discussion of right wing trolls, the waters tend to get muddied by right wingers countering that, ‘Hey, both sides are doing it. Look at what Clinton did during the election.'

Hilary Clinton’s leaked emails purportedly show that, during her election campaign, she had trolls working to ‘correct the record’ about the Democratic Party on social media. Pro-Democrat sock puppets (and presumably bots too) were unleashed on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spread arguments in favour of Hilary Clinton for President.

While it may be true that liberal figures have used trolls to their advantage in the past, the chief difference between them and the right wing is the targets that they choose.  Liberal trolls have tended tend to take aim at other officials and people in power, or else to respond to right wing trolls that are plastering the boards with hate.  Right wing trolls, whether they be Alt-Right guys ‘living in Mom’s basement’ or high ranking CEO’s at a major paper manufacturer, aim their aggression squarely at the masses. They do so all year round, election campaigns be damned. Getting into government does not appear to be their chief aim - keeping the masses down does.

To do this, right wing trolls are quick to resort to death threats and intimidation, as well... not only to get into government, but also to keep the masses quiet, even when their position of power is not up for grabs.  In an anonymous online world, it is their choice of targets which tells us who the people behind the screen names might be. They are targeting people for whom the internet is the one and only way to speak up - people who are fighting, not just an election campaign, but real social problems that have a proven body-count.

And, as one Motherboard piece on the Hacking Team leaks scandal shows, the pricing of many trolling services suggests that they are aimed at the very rich. 

It's hard not to conclude that such trolls are speaking for an elite group of people which aims to heap abuse on us, via the comments section of our favourite websites.  That they are using the public's online megaphone to vent rage at being disliked, opposed and thwarted by the "little people". And that, being too cowardly to own up to that fact, they choose to hide behind a veil of online anonymity, instead.

NPR journalist David Folkenflick, who used to work at Fox News, has written a book describing how the media giant asked its staff to troll the web.  “One former [Fox News] staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred," he wrote.  These sock puppet-masters apparently targeted bloggers and other commentators who were critical of Fox’s reporting.

Comments left on Fox News
In other words, rather than modify its site's content to suit the community which criticized it (or even investigate that community's complaints) Fox preferred to reshape what that community should think by getting its staff to pose as members of that community. An activist wants to inject their view into the mainstream, whereas most high ranking trolling operations seem like they want to replace the mainstream view entirely, with one that suits their agenda.

Stories of major corporate players hiring shills to post favourable comments online are quite easy to come by, these days. If all of these stories were added up, they would surely outstrip all the activities of the Alt-Right. Taken together, they add up to a regressive, threatening din in the backdrop of our online lives.

The juggernaut of manufactured public opinion plunges ever onward, crushing everything in its path - even the question of whether people in power should be allowed to manufacture online consent in this way. As it does, totalitarianism becomes the default position of the online world.


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