The Emperor’s New Trolls

Toby Weston
Mar 1, 2019 · 4 min read
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We are already in an Information war with state-sponsored Trolls

Listening recently to Sam Harris’ podcast, I grasped for the first time the full audacity of Putin’s psych-ops program. In the podcast, Renée DiResta lays bare the Russian troll-farm operation to systematically trawl social-media for hot-button issues to amplify and exploit. Her data shows how a single fake account might jump from religion to politics, to race, before eliciting a suitable response; but once the troll locks onto something promising, it works to prise open that dormant social fissure, drafting in armies of allied bots and trolls to tweak the minds of their unsuspecting followers and eventually send rivers of hot hate erupting to the surface.

Anything will do. The only common theme: it must be divisive.

National Pride, Gay Pride, Trans Pride, Geek Pride; every Conspiracy theory you have heard of, and many you won’t have; Anti Vaxxers, Flat Earthists, Nibiru Millenarianists; Feminists vs Incels; Immigrants vs Nazis…

You name it. It’s not only Trump or Brexit here. If people are prone to argue about something down the pub, or over their Thanksgiving tables, then it qualifies for artificial inflation.

Take the Anti-Vaxxer phenomenon. Although the majority of parents have always understood the importance of vaccinating their children; starting in about 2013 the vast majority of Facebook posts talking about vaccination began promoting the Anti-Vaxxer agenda — we now know that many of these posts came from bot-farms and troll-centers posing as concerned parents.

“We started looking at the Russian trolls, because that data set became available. One of the first things that came out was they tweet about vaccines way more often than the average Twitter user. Broniatowski said trolls tweeted about vaccines about 22 times more often than regular Twitter users.”

To anybody looking in, unaware, believing they are part of an organic swell of concerned activism, it can be hard to resist. Overwhelmed, their herd-mentality sub-routines are successfully spoofed by an environment saturated with cognitive chaff. Betrayed by their own evolutionary psychology, the individual now accepts the once ridiculous conclusion and shifts their opinion towards the herd consensus.

What was once crazy becomes the norm. The small number of people predisposed to think for themselves become confused and increasingly alienated…
…sound familiar?

Bad faith actors are exploiting a psychological heuristic intended to calibrate an individual’s point of view with the wisdom of the herd.

Once this happens, society’s own socio-cognitive immune system jumps into life and flash mobs of outrage spring up to shout down any remaining legitimate objections.

At least forewarned is forearmed. Knowing the troll’s modus-operandi, it is vital that we pay attention. When unfathomable, illogical, but frequently-espoused positions suddenly appear, we must examine them for traces of trollish manipulation… even if we agree with the sentiment.

I have always considered myself pro-diversity and pro-social justice, but recently feel utterly left behind by the progressive-narrative of the ‘snowflake’ social-justice-warriors. How much of this is because well-intentioned, but naive and impressionable, individuals have been hypnotized by squads of trolls into contorted extreme positions they would never have gotten into on their own?

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Unnatural mental contortions are necessary for the same individual to support both Sharia Islam and Gender Equality

Societies are already prone to ‘emperors new clothes’ style excursions; evidence of reality can be ignored if enough people reinforce a common counterfactual position.

This happens organically with fashion (believe me, beards, rolled-up trousers, and lumberjack shirts never looked cool) and with the slow shifting tides of social taboo; but clearly, it can also be gamed, cynically exploited, and weaponized by skilled actors.

Knowing this, we must seek out and examine these once harmless embers of fringe opinion so skillfully coaxed and fanned into conflagrations of artificial outrage.

Trolling may turn out to be a positive influence; a constant perturbation of society, preventing it from settling down prematurely into false local minima.

Unacknowledged though, this verbose flood of disinformation is becoming an existentially problematic predicament.

We are facing rafts of very real, very immediate problems and both a naive preoccupation with wishful thinking and the equal and opposite reaction of radical, nationalist, traditionalist, status-quo dogma, will bog us down in cognitive red-tape while the forests burn and the ice-caps melt.

Who would have thought that #gamergate might be the tremor that announces the coming of our Fermi-Paradox filter?

#maga #trump #sadpuppies #metoo #antivaxxer #blacklivesmatter #ReasonsToLeaveEU #fandamentalism

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