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By Jason Michael

Government funded trolls have become a serious threat to the effectiveness of the online independence movement. We have to start taking this threat seriously and acting accordingly. Ridding ourselves of these bampots must become a priority.

Back in the day, when I took my first tentative steps out into the brave new world of social media, trolls were perceived in the main to be figures of grotesque comedy; sad, lonely guys living in their elderly parents’ spare room. Our image of them was of disgusting, greasy vest wearing perverts making the lives of teenaged girls and female celebrities unbearable. In fairness this is how I still imagine the person or persons unknown behind the Spanner account, but then the profile image it adopts does little to dissuade us from thinking this.

Slippery Frank no doubt still exists. He, replicated in the millions by now, is still out their hunched over his keyboard in his jocks thumping away at the keys – and other things – making people nervous. But as the online community has developed, and as its interests have spread into the world of politics, the troll too – believe it or not – has evolved with us. In the days before the internet, for those who can still remember them, when the government or the police wanted to keep tabs on social and interest groups, political subversives, and other activists they had to get out the office, go undercover, and infiltrate these groups. From the 1950s, in the heyday of McCarthyism in the US, all the way to the 90s western governments developed incredibly sophisticated on-the-ground intelligence gathering networks. This wasn’t the preserve of the KGB and the Stasi.

Online digital communication changed all this, however. With the proliferation of the internet and social media political activism moved from the rented out budget hotel conference suit and the street corner to cyber space. All of a sudden the beat cops were playing catch-up again. It hasn’t taken them long to catch up. The hunt for cyber criminals has equipped governments and law enforcement agencies the world over with the tools to branch out and snoop on everyone with an internet connection. Their capabilities, thanks to the development of technologies that have made mass data harvesting and full spectrum online surveillance possible, are now near limitless.

What does limit them, however, is the present – possible – inability of these technologies to impersonate real human behaviour and online communication styles. Enter the government paid troll. These are no longer your bog standard Oily Frank, but mercenary IT graduates willing to do almost anything – for the greater good – under the cover of the Official Secrets Act.

This is no longer the stuff of paranoid activist fantasies or wild conspiracy theories. When as recently as late August we read in the Times of London of the wholesale use of Russian government trolls in the subversion of the EU referendum, we know that it’s happening. Governments, from Israel to the United States, are engaged in cyber warfare; domestically against their own citizens and internationally against other countries’ governments and their citizens to advance their own geopolitical agendas. Britain is doing it too.

One study conducted by Oxford University found that less than one per cent of the UK’s Twitter traffic during the Brexit campaign was composed of “bots” – sometimes automated, sometimes manned fake Twitter accounts, and that these hyperactive users produced over a third of all the Leave propaganda on the platform. We know they weren’t all Russian. Vast sums of dark money were flooding into the Leave campaign from funders related to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign via accounts belonging to unionists in Northern Ireland for like purposes. Britain has an international soft power reputation and this includes considerable cyber warfare expertise.

These bot and operated government accounts – on every social media platform – are all over the UK and we have all encountered them. British security and intelligence forces are using them in every online theatre where the state imagines itself to be under threat. We can take it for granted they are all over Scottish Twitter – what with the size of the independence movement and all – like a rash.

How do we recognise them? The simple answer is that we can’t. Yes, some are more obvious than others. We come across accounts with no profile picture, no bio, and few followers. All they do is attack pro-independence activists. These are trolls. It can’t be said for sure that they are government, but they amount to the same thing. Others, we must assume, are well-connected and deeply embedded in the online independence movement. Good luck weeding these ones one. Then there are the “porn star” accounts with their honey trap butt cheeks and cleavages inviting us to click a link. We might find some delicious things on the other side of that link but that click gave someone else access to your device. All of the above are relentless and they won’t be going away.

Internet trolls – especially in the political sphere – have a number of functions. They are a distraction. Trolls will engage activists in petty arguments, and, of course, the activist, taking this as a teaching opportunity, will happily go down the rabbit hole. It’s pointless. No argument will convince them of the merits of independence. They don’t even have a vote. Most likely the person on the other side is in an office in Wolverhampton following the instructions pinned to their blue cubical wall.

Others are there to “nudge.” Like the rest of us they will like and share. They will build up a rapport with other independentistas. Over time they will increase their influence over key activists and begin to subtly inform their opinions with regard to certain questions and issues. It doesn’t need to be big. We must remember that this is happening thousands of times to a plethora of accounts over the whole country. Accumulatively these small, seemingly insignificant, nudges have a larger impact on the whole movement than can be seen or appreciated from the perspective of a single activist.

It is absolutely imperative that we stop feeding the trolls

At bottom, that account with the cute teddy with a saltire flag or the one with a blazing lion’s head that gave you all the #FFs and likes your snappy witticisms is someone you have never met. “We need to wait until after Brexit before pushing for another referendum,” might sound like sage advice. It might be. But that person might have that exact line on a printout on the desk next to them. Whatever they’re saying, they are saying in tandem with all their government employee workmates and it’s beginning to sound like the accepted wisdom of the movement. Then real independentistas start echoing it and so it becomes the position of the movement. That’s how it works.

Our only sure-fire defence is the block button. Use it. Block on sight those that are obvious trolls and time wasters. They may not be government, but we don’t know. Block them. Don’t be afraid to ask others – publically if need be – about accounts that make you suspicious. We have to be in the habit of getting all of this out and into the open. Transparency kills trolls. Encourage those activist friends online who still think it’s edgy and mysterious not to have a bio and profile picture to get with the programme. Yes – the programme. We are a political movement. We’re here to fight for Scottish independence and right now the danger posed to this movement by government interference far outweighs the cost of losing a few followers.

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3 thoughts on “Online Trolls: Don’t Feed the Bampots

  1. Agreed. But…

    All of social media is a bubble & the danger of blocking everyone who disagrees with the accepted core message (whatever that is) is that we run into the danger of believing that everyone is onside & we may not see how many people are not being reached by our arguments in favour of independence.

    We saw this in 2014 & it is easy to forget that only a small percentage of the population are on social media & an even smaller percentage are politically engaged there. Just yesterday a friend announced on Facebook that he had found a way if filtering out all political posts using some algorithm but many, many more simply ‘unfollow’ or skip past political posts made by their friends because that are not really interested.

    What is needed are real conversations with real people that we know. Use trusted sites (blogs like this are a prime example) to keep informed but spend your time interacting with people you know (or meet randomly) & turn the conversation to independence rather than ‘conversing’ online. In the pub, at work, on the bus, over the dinner table or up a mountain (as has happened to me on more than one occasion) talk to people & get out of the bubble.

    If every person who voted Yes in 2014 converts one No voter to Yes we win. It is that simple. And, in reality, it is even better than that as we only need to convince one in every eleven to win next time round.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here is an example of the bubble effect of the internet and how it limits us without us realising it:

    Did you know there is a rally on today (Saturday 16th September) in Glasgow to show support for Scottish Independence? No? Me neither. I spent several hours online yesterday (which is only a bit more than I usually spend online each day) reading indy blogs only because one of the writers happened to mention that he was going to be speaking at the event did I even know it was on.

    How did this happen? Because I have at some time in the past stopped following certain pages on Facebook because I got fed up by the drip, drip, drip effect of dull social media posts and have tuned them out. I notice that one of my FB friends has indicated she is going to the event but FB didn’t highlight that to me as she is not a close friend who I interact with a lot (she is outside of closest bubble though inside others) and FB has decided that I am not that interested in what she is up to on a day to day basis (true, I’m not). I’ve given up on Twitter because most of the time it is the same people bickering at each other and every time I do go back to that medium to see what is going on I can only stomach it for a day then I’m off again.

    So how is the Yes movement keeping me, one of its keenest supporters, informed? Answer, its not. Because I am outside of the bubble. Now think of all of the 55% who voted No; are they inside or outside of the Yes bubble on social media? These, of course, are only my impressions and my opinions and I genuinely pass no judgement on those who do enjoy using social media platforms but I am just illustrating how ineffective they can be and how we independence supporters need to think of other means to communicate as well.

    Like

  3. Excellent advice. Some of us already have a list of the worst trolls who have multiple profiles- and who dominate the SNP page, The National page, the Scottish Government page and Nicola Sturgeons. Unfortunately., after reporting these trolls to SNP admin, the only action taken is to suspend the yessers account- leading many of us to conclude that there are trolls or Unionists in admin.
    Although this is slightly off topic it’s worth highlighting in regard to that online problems facing the independence movement

    Like

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