We are in Cold War 2.0. We enter the battlefield every time we log into one of our social media accounts.The Russians have weaponized our own innovations for communication against us. This is a carefully orchestrated military campaign against America.
Cyberspace is now considered the 4th theatre of warfare. In the arenas of air, land and sea The United States has had natural boundaries with oceans to the East and West and allies to the North and South. In the cyber arena there are no boundaries. For the first time The United States faces front lines on the home front.
Every time an American citizen logs onto social media they are open to influence by Putin’s social media cyber warfare tactics. One of his most effective components of his social media psyops machine are the trolls.
Meet the Putin’s Social Media Trolls
First let’s take a look at the origin of the word troll in the context of social media. Trolls have been around since the first opportunity top post anonymous comments online. Trolls are amateurs who are abusive online for sport. Amateur meaning unpaid. They are generally expert at being obnoxious.
The Russian “troll” accounts are part of Putin’s cyber military strategy. They are his cyber soldiers. They are trained. They are paid. They are utilized in coordinated campaigns in the cyber arena the way conventional troops are used in conventional arenas of air, land and sea.
Samantha Bee sat down with two Russian agents from the Internet Research Agency in October 2016. Watch this video of them explaining their jobs. Note, this video contains strong language and Samantha Bee has a strong political bias. If you want to skip Samantha’s opening remarks and get right to the trolls explaining their work jump to the :55 mark.
Russian Trolls Generating Real World Activity In America
Have Russian troll accounts been effective? Just ask the protesters who convened at the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston on Saturday, May 21, 2016. Both sides of the protests were lured there by Facebook event posts run by Russian trolls. In other words, no Americans were involved in organizing either side of the protest. Look at the pictures of Americans facing off in Huston streets and consider the very real world division generated by this online operation.
There have been continued attempts to create real world divisive events via the Facebook event tool. One was easy to debunk as it claimed to be organized by the Women’s March organizers. They were contacted and confirmed it was not their event. Facebook removed the posting, but not be fore 3,400 people had RSVPed to the Facebook posting.
Russian Trolls Treated As American Thought Leaders
Some Russian troll accounts developed large engaged followings. Journalists quoted their tweets in articles as if they were thought leaders. In one sense they were, accounts like Jenna Abrams and @TEN_GOP were leading Americans by the nose. However, they were never the American citizens or American political organizations they pretended to be. They were fabrications by the Internet Research Agency.
Here a Russian Troll, There a Russian Troll, Everywhere a Russian Troll
The analysis of Russian activity on social media during the 2016 election revealed that they targeted our national debates, particularly around race. They worked hard to stir the flames in the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter debate. They had numerous accounts working both sides of the debate.
We are now discovering they have been engaging in almost all of our social media debates from vaccines to Star Wars. They often do not start the debate. They just throw gasoline on our social media flame wars. The goal is to sow division. They will exploit every avenue possible.
How to Spot a Troll
Trolls can be tricky to spot at a passing glance. These accounts are carefully curated by their handlers. But they are not the grandma from Nebraska or the military veteran they are pretending to be so there will always be tell.
Their English is slightly off – they will phrase things in slightly odd ways. With some troll accounts you can even see the shift change as the person with a better handle on English logs on for the afternoon shift
They are posting on Moscow time – this is not a 100% indicator as there are tools for scheduling posts. And often the accounts are busy during times of day that don’t make sense for the time zones where they claim to live
They can’t keep their stories straight – Trolls often assert personal facts to match the debate they are engaged in at the moment. A veteran may have claims of serving 10,15, 25 years. A mother may have 4 then two, then one child. The children are toddlers one day and adults serving in the military the next. The next day they are elementary schoolers with a nut allergy.
They come out of nowhere hurling insults and inflammatory comments – For example, someone I know posted an open to the public post about peanut allergies on Facebook. Suddenly 3 profiles with whom she had no friends in common, who were friends with about 15 accounts that looked like honeypot (cute girl fake accounts), and no posts on their Facebook page replied to comments on her post with aggressive, name calling comments.
They often travel in packs. If you get one troll you will usually get three to five. If someone argues with the first troll’s comments the others will swarm to provide their support. If the first comment does not get a response the others often post more hostile comments in an attempt to get a response.
Do Not Feed the Trolls
This is the first rule of internet fight club. Responding to trolls only encourages them.
Next time you see a troll comment or get into an argument on social media take a minute to notice your physiological response. Notice how mere words on the screen have triggered anger. That means your body is being marinated in stress hormones. Do you really need that?
If someone is trolling you on social media their goal is to provoke a response. It could be a Russian agent account. It could be an actual fellow American, as we have picked up the ball of divisive discourse and run with it.
In the end it doesn’t matter if people are fighting with Russian agent accounts or fellow Americans angry, name calling arguments further Putin’s mission of sowing division among Americans.You aren’t going to convince anyone to consider your point of view by hurling insults any more than you are going to be convinced.
You do not owe random accounts posting vitriol on your social media posts a response. Since their comments may provoke arguments among your friends and followers you may want to delete and block them.
On LinkedIn and Facebook you can delete comments from your posts. You cannot delete other people’s tweets from your posts, but blocking them from your profile will prevent them from posting replies to future posts. All platforms have the option to report and block both individual posts and whole accounts.
Hamilton 68: The dashboard tracking Russian agent account activity. The “Top Hashtags” and “Top URL” graphs are the most accurate indicator of activity.
Houston Chronicle: A Houston Protest Organized by Russian Trolls – The story of a protest in Houston in which both sides were manipulated by Russian trolls through Facebook to attend a protest and counter protest.
New York Times: The Agency – An introduction to the Internet Research Agency, (IRA) the office where Russian trolls clock in and sit in the cubicles working to meet their quotas.
Introduction to TEN_GOP Russian Troll Twitter Account – The Russian Twitter troll account that amassed over 100K followers and fooled reporters into quoting it in articles and American political leaders in to retweeting it
DFR Lab Report: How A Russian Troll Fooled America -The story of Russian troll Twitter account posing as the Tennessee GOP influenced American voters and political leaders.
Daily Beast: Jenna Abrams, Russia’s Clown Troll Princess, Duped the Mainstream Media and the World – The story of the Jenna Abrams Russian Troll account which was regularly quoted by US media.
NBC Database: 200,000 Russian Tweets Deleted from Twitter – One of the frustrations in analyzing the Russian 2016 warfare tactics on social media is the social media sites are deleting the content. If they would freeze and archive the materials we could do better forensics. In this link NBC has preserved 200,000 tweets.