If Your Brain Is the Battlefield, You’d Better Learn to Fight
How to Tell Russian Troll Farms to Fuck the Fuck Off
Funny. Trenchant. Righteous. Clever. Pretty. Skippable. Stupid. Harmless.
And a tool used by Russian troll farms to make us hate each other in order to topple our democracy and crown Putin douche-king of the global plutocracy.
It turns out memes are the glitter of Russian cyberwarfare. They get everywhere, they never come off, and they make everything an itchy goddamn mess.
(Scroll down for a battle plan to kill these memes. Stay here for the backstory.)
The Daily Beast reported last week that a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account called “Blacktivist” came out of a “Kremlin-backed ‘troll farm’ in St. Petersburg.”
For more than a year, the account pumped out memes on Colin Kaepernick, the NFL, Black Lives Matter and Blues Lives Matter, among other topics, hashtagging the heck out of #TakeAKnee and #BoycottNFL. The memes were intended to inflame discussions and, to put it colloquially, make Americans fucking hate each other more than we already do.
These Kremlin-backed troll farms get the scoop on how our citizenry is annoying, enraging, or otherwise upsetting each other. Then they craft precise posts — memes, hashtags, declarations — that are guaranteed to get our dander up higher than it already is, and they flood our social media with them. (Mark my half-informed, bitter words, all these shenanigans will one day be linked not just to Putin, but to Cambridge Analytica and the American plutocrats [here’s looking at you, Robert and Rebecca Mercer, you warped selfish goons, and all your mewling billionaire traitor-comrades, too] who are funding the takedown of America to realize their Panem-style dystopia.)
The thing is, social media is us. The product on these sites is US—our thoughts, our emotions, our relationships. Russian trolls, and all trolls, are crapping their poison IN Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, but ON us, because without US, there is no Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram.
You feel me? The battlefield is OUR souls. Nobody actually gives a shit about our minds and hearts, not the trolls and not the Mercers and not Putin and not Facebook and not Twitter. But they gain power and rake in billions by manipulating and weaponizing our inner lives. They don’t care about us. We aren’t the prize or priority; we’re the product. We’re the field of engagement, and nobody cares about the field. We’re pulp. Care about us? Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha.
But we care about us. The battlefield is us, and we have no Aragorn or Henry V riding to rescue. No Prince Charming. No Superman. Maybe a Wonder Woman, but she’s got a lot on her plate.
Each of us has to be our own goddamn Frodo.
As we, the citizenry, are the moral leadership for our country right now, so we must also be our own champions against immoral, deep-pocketed crapbags who would pervert our minds, and our democracy, for their gain.
Here’s how we fight.
Recognize Troll Memes. Get savvy to when trolls of any nationality are attacking us with their slimy memes.
Luckily, the design and editorial principles of troll memes are pretty easy to spot:
- Bold sans serif type, usually white, sometimes a mess of color
- Amateur, chaotic feel, like your neighbor Phyllis glued it together in Microsoft Publisher
- Widely recognizable current events photos
- One concept per meme, using simple, direct nouns and verbs, often speaking in a collective voice
- Possibly including fake screenshots of fake tweets from real famous people
The emotional principles are straightforward, too. Troll memes want to:
- make you feel angry
- make you feel confused and despairing
- make you feel morally RIGHT
- make you feel like the other side is made up of stupid, duck-faced, hysterical, evil losers
- make you feel like you and yours are under attack
Non-troll memes can achieve all of the above too, as can FOX News and Occupy Democrats. That’s when we…
Trace Meme Slime to Its Source. Who’s posting it? What’s the organization? Are any of your friends part of it? What has this organization done in real life? What’s their non-social media online footprint? How often are they posting? How’s their English grammar? Do they share characteristics with known foreign or domestic troll accounts?
As of today, you can’t pick up a chipper Troll Account 101 pamphlet from your friendly anti-terrorism navigator with a pop-up office on Main Street. But lots of people, some random, some reputable, are trying to figure out patterns in Russian troll accounts and share their research in useful ways.
- Kris Schaffer from Data for Democracy has a helpful primer on sussing out bot and troll accounts.
- This dude on Twitter explores the habits of Russian trolls.
- This other dude breaks down the traits of a left-wing Russian troll account.
- DFRLab writes frequently on troll activity against Western liberal democracies.
Get to know what trolls look like. They’re a shifty bunch, evolving to stay shadowed, but they aren’t original. They move in groups and leave big foul footprints. And then…
Slap a Troll on It and Recirculate. Screenshot or download the meme. Upload it to Canva. Or Publisher. Whatever. Put a big picture of an actual troll on it and the words “MADE BY TROLLS.”
Post this new meme on your accounts with a short description of your research and links to legitimate sources informing that research. (Don’t go off half-cocked and end up a sloppy troll yourself.) Get together five or ten pals to be your Troll Meme Rapid Response Team to repost or retweet these defanged memes.
Know that it will be easy to slap trolls on memes you hate and hard to slap a troll on a meme you agree with (it will feel like you’re slapping grandma). But the work of a troll is the work of a troll. Go share a post on the same topic by a verifiable non-nutty human to make yourself feel better.
Fighting troll memes is a small effort, I know. Eventually social media platforms are going to need some form of civic protection to defend us more fully from attack. You would think they would want to, as the corruption of their sites will, over time, devalue their product. It’s a slow rot, maybe, but it’s a rot against their self-interest.
But until we get to large-scale solutions, we are the frontline with the most at stake. And we have power, because without us, there is no product. Without us, these social media sites do not exist.There can be no battle and no spoils without the field.
Can you imagine a WWII battlefield suddenly becoming sentient, looking up at the mayhem ripping it to shreds, saying, “Hell, no! I’m outta here,” and walking away? We are a sentient battlefield. We can defend ourselves and our democracy. We can decide what happens to us here.
(Now that we’re considering absurd things, imagine that we organized a social media boycott until the platforms worked with civic leadership to institute protections against trolls. Wouldn’t that be cool? Wouldn’t it be even cooler if we didn’t willingly fork over our inner lives to unregulated corporations? Sigh.)
Social media is designed for the amplification of ideas. Let’s transparently and ethically amplify a collective Fuck Off to troll memes. In the end, it’s a matter of pride. We are perfectly capable of meme-enraging each other without foreign or automated help. Go U.S.A.!