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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.
The point of the TROLL is to waste your time. By engaging with them you are letting them win. Block and move on.—
Butterfly Rebellion (@Butterfly_Reb) September 13, 2017
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.
Activist Post: Yes, There Are Paid Government Trolls, inc UK, On Social Media, Blogs, Forums And Websites activistpost.com/2014/02/yes-th…—
Lance Dyer (@Lance63) February 27, 2014
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.
Are Paid Government Trolls Harassing You?