Activists, Slacktivists, Trolls, and Bots

Oct 05, 2018

I have to admit, ever since the election in two thousand sixteen I’ve been kind of wary about social media sites, not knowing what information to believe, where it came from, or even who wrote it. Discussion websites can be really obnoxious because it sometimes impossible to express an opinion without inviting a dog pile of backlash from an army of sarcastic nutcase trolls full of political venom. Answering back seemed futile so I eventually stopped posting altogether.  And according to a new book called Russian Nazi Troll Bots by an underground journalist named Eric Saeger this is exactly what the trolls wanted me to do, that is, give up and cede the online debate.

Trolling is one of the many terms we’ve been hearing for years now but may be unclear as to what it means. The book explains that internet trolling is a deliberate attempt to shock, annoy, or anger other readers and cause trouble by posting outrageous or uninvited commentary.  Trolls may be actual people or they may be internet bots, short for robots, which are software applications that run automated tasks like searching articles for key words and responding with a pre-written script of comments. For example, once located, a phrase like ‘gun violence’ in a post might prompt an automated reply like ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ If you’ve ever tried to respond with a rational argument, you know it’s futile. You’ll just continue to be barraged with canned retorts or ugly memes, those images with sardonic captions, so many that you may feel outnumbered.

And feeling outnumbered is particularly onerous because it’s not true. In fact, the bots, or the live trolls who act in consort, have created a false consensus, that is, the illusion of being in the majority.  They do this not only by flooding us with comments but by providing an incessant number of thumbs ups, also called likes.

The number of likes a web article gets is actually a big deal. It creates social proof of its popularity and can make it come up as a recommendation in the sidebar, sometimes even causing it to go viral. And of course, getting a lot of thumbs ups gives a huge pat on the back to the people who are behind the web article, egging them on.

While over twenty five countries employ an army of trolls, known as cyber troops, to manipulate public opinion within their own borders, we know that Russia uses its trolls to create divisions between American citizens.  Some people don’t believe they actually set out to elect Donald Trump, that they were really trying to create a massive diversion from their activities in Ukraine and Syria, and were as surprised as we were by Trump’s victory.

Whatever you believe, there are lots of domestic trolls, enough to influence public opinion, both on the left and the right. Saeger points out that right wing trolls, knowing that their views are in the minority with most Americans, have therefore been working longer and harder at creating a fake majority consensus. One example is the National Rifle Association who, in spite of knowing that two out of three Americans is in favor of some sort of gun control, use trolls and bots to make it look as if the entire internet is terrified of the Second Amendment being removed at any minute.

But there is a way to fight back. If you’ve ever heard the term Slacktivist, you know its kind of a put down for someone who does all of their protesting by posting on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. But Saeger thinks that using your computer to actively counter the trolls can make a very effective difference. He says there’s a large scale war going on in cyber space, and when you jump into an internet discussion to down vote a fake news post or respond to a nasty comment on Facebook, you’re giving courage to other progressives, assuring them they’re not alone, and proving to the media that the gun rights groups or the people who want to end social security are not in the majority.

So going to demonstrations, and calling congressmen, and making donations, are not the only ways to protest. We can also stand up to cyber bullies, create an army of keyboard warriors, create social proof of the real majority. And maybe even…Make the Internet Great Again.

I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.