Russia Is Carefully Crafting Designer Trolls To Deceive Us
Putin hates America but he loves trolls.
Of the hundreds of thousands of trolls in his vast troll armies, Putin loves his designer trolls the best. After all, each designer troll is lovingly handcrafted to best deceive its own target audience.
- Some designer trolls target #1488 white supremacists or neo-Nazis.
- More target #MAGA Trump supporters.
- A surprisingly large number get to be fake #Resistance targeting liberal voters.
- Others pretend they’re #Antifa or #Anonymous.
- Moderates and independents shouldn’t feel left out. There’re designer trolls targeting even you too.
Putin’s designer trolls are given homes that are best suited for their respective target audiences. I’m betting designer Russian trolls are “living” in every state in the U.S., every country across Europe and lots of other places around the world too. Lots of lucky trolls get to be dual nationals or expats so they can target audiences in multiple countries.
Just like Russia’s intelligence agencies provide their real-world spies with a “legend” and “pocket litter” to bolster their cover stories, Putin’s designer trolls generally get little knickknacks of their own too — maybe a photograph of their “grandfather” or a piece of paper that looks like it’s from the troll’s make-believe daily life.
Grumpy, the right-wing Russian troll we’ve been looking at in my last two posts, is a great example of a Russian designer troll. Since Russia’s running 100,000s of trolls and bots, there’s a skilled team (or teams) of people who decide what designer trolls Russia wants to add and then goes about carefully crafting each one. Someone somewhere (likely a manager or senior team member at the Internet Research Agency in Olgino outside of Saint Petersburg, Russia) designed Grumpy. He or she is a mystery genius.
Putin’s Russia carefully crafts designer trolls to deceive us. Tweet this.
Grumpy Targets Veterans
Let’s remember our mystery genius’ creative brief — design a troll whose primary purpose is to incite hate and violence, even murder, against Muslims in America. When our mystery genius was given her assignment, she undoubtedly knew from experience that this new troll should target white military veterans. To do so, she immediately realized that she needed to make the new troll a veteran too.
Now let’s look at how our mystery genius goes about crafting this particular designer troll.
The name that she chooses is Iceman. Since Grumpy’s bio claims that he’s a “USAF veteran,” why not use the call sign of Val Kilmer’s character who’s a Naval aviator in Top Gun? It’s the wrong branch of service and a little obvious but it works.
I also like the photoshopped image that our mystery genius selects for Grumpy’s profile photo. So you can see it better, here’s an enlarged version.
Our mystery genius starts out with a funny photo of a guy with a tight buzz cut dressed in his service uniform strapped to the underside of the wing of a USAF plane while he’s holding a rifle (it looks like a M-16A1) as if he’s part of the plane’s armament. Personally I like how the gunner’s wearing goggles.
Sure, this is photograph that’s been floating around on the net since at least 2003. When I ran a Google search on the photo, I discovered that a label that Google Images assigns to the photo is “redneck gun.” Still it’s humor like this that appeals to precisely the audience that Grumpy’s trying to attract — men who are vets and are comfortable around guns and probably own a few themselves, maybe even some assault rifles — you know the type that might come in handy if someone someday decides to let God do the sorting.
Our mystery genius then uses Photoshop to paste an emblem of a knight’s helmet onto the side of the airplane. Is anyone else hearing echoes of that lone Crusader Knight Templar theme that’s designed to stir up animus against Muslims?
Then our mystery genius designing this troll picks out the name Grumpy’s Toy. She has these words photoshopped onto Grumpy’s profile photo. She uses it as this troll’s Twitter screen name @GrumpysToy. This is the first of the two aspects of Grumpy that I view as remarkably clever.
Do you recognize the name Grumpy’s Toy? Does it mean anything to you whatsoever?
If you guess that the name Grumpy’s Toy has anything to do with this image from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, then
give yourself a swift kick to your behind.
On the other hand, if you recognize that Grumpy’s Toy has something to do with this race car, then
give yourself a hearty slap on the back.
Yep, our mystery genius at the Russian troll farm in Olgino names this troll after NHRA Hall of Fame drag racer Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and his race cars, which Jenkins called Grumpy’s Toy (in 1965) through Grumpy’s Toy XVII (in 1983).
Just take a moment and admire the deep and multi-faceted knowledge of American culture that the selection of the name Grumpy’s Toy reflects. After all, drag racing culture resonates exactly with the patriotic gun-luving audience that our mystery genius is trying to reach through Grumpy. A Twitter account using the name Grumpy’s Toy implicitly signals to drag-race-luving Americans (many of whom are gun-luving veterans too) that I’m real, I’m just like you and you can trust me.
If you didn’t recognize Grumpy’s Toy, instead of kicking yourself in your butt as you should, maybe you’re thinking to yourself that what I’m telling you is a stretch and that the selection of this particular name for this particular designer troll is at best a lucky coincidence. Think again.
Just take a look at the detailed knowledge of American culture that Russia used to create Boceffus Cleetus aka @CleetusBocefus, the Twitter account that Russia’s military intelligence used as a cut-out when it did the Shadow Brokers drop — the public release by Russia of secret NSA hacking tools. You can read all about it here on Medium in the grugq’s excellent analysis:
It’s all there — a grasp of American culture so complete it encompasses both Hank Williams Jr.’s obscure nickname (I’m a fan and I didn’t know it) and a reference to a character from The Dukes of Hazzard, the stockcar-racing inspired TV show that ran from 1979 through 1985.
So, yeah, maybe it’s long past time for all of us to fess up and admit that Russia is way more skilled at social media than we are, that it knows our own culture better than we do ourselves and that the reason that our mystery genius at the Russian troll factory names this troll Grumpy’s Toy is because the name means something to this troll’s target audience.
Maybe, just maybe, this desire to reach drag-racing-luving Americans is why Grumpy tweets about bringing back “the DUKES of HAZARD.”
(It’s too bad Grumpy can’t get the show’s name right. A true fan would know it’s The Dukes of Hazzard with two z’s.)
Maybe, just maybe, the same desire to reach this target audience is why Grumpy tweets about the “plain Jane” stock car he claims to own.
(It’s too bad this isn’t really Grumpy’s car — duh! — and he or his handler just stole the photo off of the internet from a used car dealership that closed a couple of year ago when its owner retired.)
Now remember when I said that our mystery genius’ selection of the name Grumpy’s Toy is one of the two aspects of Grumpy that I view as particularly clever? There’s something else to consider and, in fact, it’s even more significant than the choice of Grumpy’s Toy, which after all is nothing more than a mere name. Like real estate agents are fond of saying, it’s location, location, location. Our mystery genius’ selection of Winona, Minnesota as Grumpy’s location is telling.
Grumpy Targets Minnesota
Let’s say you work at one of Russia’s troll factories and you’re given the assignment to create a Twitter troll to stir up hate and provoke violence against Muslims in America. What spot would you consider picking for this new troll?
How about Minnesota?
- Hasn’t immigration into Minnesota been growing much faster than the national average for the last quarter century?
- After all, doesn’t Minnesota have the largest concentration of Somalis anywhere in North America — a population that’s at least 40,000 or so and might even be 100,000?
- Aren’t the Somalis in Minnesota overwhelmingly Muslim?
- Doesn’t the Somali community in Minnesota face challenges with 40% of adults not working, 40% not having a high school diploma and half living in poverty?
- Hasn’t crime by Somali gangs in Minnesota been a growing problem for years?
- Haven’t many Somalis in Minnesota been convicted of supporting terrorist organizations?
- Haven’t mosques in Minnesota been damaged in recent years?
- Didn’t Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, lecture his constituents two years ago, telling them that “white, B+, Minnesota-born citizens” weren’t enough and that he was going to keep bringing in more immigrants? Didn’t Governor Dayton say anyone who disagreed “should find another state”? Didn’t Dayton stand up and tell native-born Minnesotans, “If you are that intolerant, if you are that much of a racist or a bigot, then find another state. Find a state where the minority population is 1 percent or whatever. It’s not that in Minnesota. It’s not going to be again.”?
Doesn’t choosing Minnesota make a lot more sense than, say, Colorado, which has about the same population but much fewer Muslims? (Not to mention Colorado’s governor hasn’t called his own constituents bigots just because they disagree with him in good faith about a public policy issue.)
So let’s go with Minnesota. If you were thinking Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio or some other states, don’t cha worry. You can sleep easy knowing the pros in Olgino are on the job.
Now the question becomes, where in Minnesota do we want to place our new troll? Remember, we’re looking for a place where we believe we might be more likely to recruit some drag-race-luving, gun-luving veterans who don’t like the direction their country and their state is heading and might just be persuaded someday to take action into their own hands.
Let’s rule out the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester right away. Those big cities are way too much of the I’m with her, tax hiking, government expanding, latte drinking, sushi eating, Volvo driving, New York Times reading, body piercing, Hollywood loving, left wing freak shows to attract our target audience. Grumpy’s going to lose credibility with our target audience if he lives anywhere near Edina or Wayzata.
Why don’t we look for a smaller town that’s whiter, poorer and has fewer immigrants?
Hey, how about Winona down in Winona County? That county has 50,000 people, is 94% white (a lot whiter than Minnesota at 85%), has a per capital income of $25,000 (a third less than Minnesota’s at $32,000) and only 4% of the people are foreign born (half of Minnesota, which is at 8%). Wow, 98% of the people in Winona County are American citizens. It’s tough to find that anywhere nowadays.
While Winona doesn’t have many Muslims itself, it isn’t far from Rochester where 4,000+ Somalis live (including a couple of Somali women convicted of supporting terrorism) and it’s only a couple hours’ drive to Little Mogadishu.
So if you pick Winona like our mystery genius at the Russian troll factory, I’ll tip my hat to you. This is precisely why Grumpy geo-tags many of his tweets as coming from Minnesota or Winona, Minnesota. I’ll give Grumpy’s team credit for this — Grumpy is the first Russian troll I’ve seen do it pretty much from the start. Even so, you shouldn’t give the geo-tagging any credence whatsoever. It’s a breeze to spoof fake GPS locations. Grumpy’s using bogus geo-tags so that he can pretend to his target audience that he lives in Winona, instead admitting it’s St. Petersburg or Moscow.
And if you’re still thinking that Grumpy picking Minnesota is just happenstance and I’m reading too much into it, maybe you might want to read a few more of Grumpy’s tweets yourself.
Let’s be clear about it — the Russians are paying attention to what Governor Dayton says and to what happens in Minnesota and using it to stir up hate and to attempt to incite violence, even murder.
Grumpy Knows His Target Audience
Now that we know why our mystery genius picks Winona, Minnesota, let’s look at just one more design decision that she makes. I’m talking about picking the motivation underlying Grumpy’s call to action, i.e., kill all the Muslims and let God sort them out.
Since she’s picks Minnesota, our mystery genius isn’t telling Grumpy to tweet #1488 white supremacist stuff. Given the Russians’ knowledge of America, I’m confident she and her colleagues know that Minnesota isn’t a KKK type of state.
Our mystery genius also isn’t telling Grumpy to tweet neo-Nazi stuff either. When Grumpy tweets about Nazis, it’s to call them bad and accuse Angela Merkel of being one. To the extent that Grumpy tweets about Jews, it’s to support them and to use it as a pivot to talk about Muslims.
No, the motivation that our mystery genius tells Grumpy to offer up isn’t #1488 white supremacist, KKK racist or neo-Nazi anti-Semitic stuff . It’s an appeal to patriotism, more specifically to the defense of American culture. That’s a motivation that’s designed to appeal to Grumpy’s target audience of veterans.
That’s why Grumpy keeps tweeting about our culture.
It’s why Grumpy keeps talking about protecting our culture when he exploits 9/11.
It’s about why Grumpy tweets about highly emotional subjects like Muslims raping children and female genital mutilation.
It’s why Grumpy mentions defending American culture when he tweets a graphic image of a bleeding decapitated head lying on the pavement that was hacked off by a Muslim.
Grumpy’s doing exactly what our mystery genius has told him to do — he’s appealing to the patriotism of gun-luving veterans to protect American culture from attack by Muslims. This also explains why Grumpy attacks political leaders of both parties and our justice system. Right-wing #MAGA trolls attack Democrats and #NeverTrump cuckservatives. Liberal fake #Resistance trolls attack Trump and Republicans. Grumpy attacks both parties. Why? It’s because Grumpy wants his target audience to believe that they can’t count on our political leaders to protect us from the barbaric, filthy, savage, child raping, female genital mutilating, sharia law imposing, sudden jihadi terrorist swine that are endangering our culture. (His words, not mine.) Grumpy wants his target audience of gun-luving patriotic veterans to realize that they need to act themselves to protect America and that the way to act is to wipe the smile off of the Muslim swine by letting God sort them out.
Now all of us, Americans and Russians alike, are going to have to wait a while to see if Russia’s investment ultimately pays off in the form of motivating some loser to pick up his guns and let God do the sorting but the early indications are that our mystery genius might have been prescient when she picked Minnesota. After all, in just the year and a half since Grumpy started tweeting, a Somali suddenly turned into a lone-wolf ISIS jihadist, stabbing and slashing nine people in St. Cloud, Donald Trump singled out Somalis in Minnesota as a source of potential terrorists, drawing outrage at his remarks and some nut used a home-made bomb to blow up a mosque in the Twin Cities, which President Trump ignored, drawing more outrage.
Still, it’s ironic that our mystery genius picked Winona, Minnesota as Grumpy’s make-believe home. While we as a nation and Minnesota as a state are dealing with difficult and divisive issues, Minnesota — which elected the first Muslim Congressman, the first Somali-American elected local official and the first Somali-American elected state legislator — has much to be proud of.
In particular, Winona embodies the best of America. It’s patriotic. This Veterans Day will mark Winona’s 25th year of holding an around-the-clock Veterans Vigil, where high schoolers join adults in standing a vigil to honor our veterans. Winona is welcoming and supportive too. It’s the type of community that when the local Islamic Center loses its building in a fire, the churches throughout town open their doors to host their Muslim neighbors and support them so that they can rebuild a new center. While I expect people in Winona disagree in good faith on lots of issues, likely including refugees as well (maybe even some daring to disagree with Governor Dayton), it’s a town where people of all faiths come together to learn about one another.
As I’ve observed, we’re at war, it’s a war of information operations, it’s being fought on Twitter, Facebook and many other sites and Putin’s Russia has declared itself to be our enemy. In Grumpy’s case, Russia has picked Winona as a battlefield. From what I can read of the town, the people of Winona are too smart and too caring to fall for the lies of even a well-designed Russian troll like Grumpy. If all of America were like Winona, we’d win this war easily.
The challenge that we face is that America isn’t Winona any more than it’s Lake Wobegon and we’re facing a skilled, persistent enemy that’s determined to promote and exploit divisions in our society to turn us against one another. In my next post, we’ll look at how Grumpy demonstrates a limitation that Russia faces in this war. After that, we’ll conclude this series on Grumpy by examining how he fits into and supports Russia’s troll armies.