By Jason Michael

ONLINE TROLLS HAVE BECOME a ubiquitous feature of the internet. Social media has become the playground of the greater part of the global online community. This is where an increasing number of people gather to interact with family and friends from the comfort of their homes and mobile devices. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have, as a consequence, become the hi-tech marketplace of ideas, it is where millions of people get their news and political analysis, and it is where they share their own political views and opinions. Once upon a time, after sharing something about Scottish politics, a friend informed me that “Facebook was not the place for politics.” Maybe she was right – way back when, but that is no longer the case. Social media has become the largest real-time political hub in history. So, it makes perfect sense that this has become the ideal hunting ground for the troll, and more particularly the political troll.

Trolling – of the non-political pedestrian variety – is a lot of fun. This is mainly innocuous pranking, and the best examples have been played on the likes of supermarkets and trans-global corporations by anonymous tricksters. They give people a giggle and the results understandably go viral. But there is another, more dangerous, troll – and more of us are meeting them. These are the politically interested trolls, people who have made it their business to disrupt or direct public discourse online to serve a political agenda. Most of these are government or privately sponsored professional trolls who are paid, usually via an intermediary such as a PR firm, to undermine political opponents, influence discussions, spread ideas, and derail criticism of the sponsor or its agenda. This type of professional troll was pioneered by the State of Israel during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, its last all-out land invasion of Gaza. In an attempt to soften international criticism, the Israeli government put teams of soldiers and supporters around the world to work on social media, making Israel’s case for violent military action and attacking outspoken critics of the invasion. Since then this tactic has become a favourite of governments when dealing with international pressure and internal opposition.

However, this doesn’t mean that all trolls are state sponsored or “paid trolls.” Some people who engage in political trolling are just ideologues. This type of trolling has become a preferred tactic of activists on the extreme right and on the extreme left of the political spectrum. We’re all familiar with right-wing trolling memes like Pepe the Frog, the OK sign, and Kekistan. These were – and still are – signs employed by the right to signal a troll’s position and its function to those in the know. The left doesn’t go in for symbols as much, but it does have its own mode of operation – its playbook, a particular way of behaving designed to harass people online, influence conversations and perceptions, and derail and silence opposition.

Recently, I have attracted the attention of such a troll. This person, as is to be expected, has an anonymous profile and uses that anonymity to bully and intimidate social media users who happen to disagree with his “radical” political opinions. Over the past couple of weeks pro-independence bloggers have been putting out fires started by an accusation by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and the leadership of the GMB Labour-affiliated trade union that a blog published by the pro-independence blogger Gareth Wardell was an anti-Semitic attack levelled at GMB activist Rhea Wolfson. Despite the fact this accusation has been countered by a number of prominent voices in the independence movement, the response from the accusers and their supporters has followed a pattern; rather than deal with the arguments being presented to them, they have resorted to a slew of tendential accusations and personal attacks.

“Juan Mac” – the moniker of my troll – is a contributor to the crypto-unionist, Labour supporting blog A Thousand Flowers. His response to a recent Open Letter to the SNP which I signed in support of Wardell was dismissive and highly personalised in its attack on those who came out in support. It made the tired old unionist argument that we were against the GMB because it supported the equal pay strike in Glasgow – an inequality created and maintained by the Labour Party when it held Glasgow City Council and one which was being addressed by the SNP at the time of the strike. This poorly written and badly spelled article could be ignored. After all, Juan Mac is entitled to his opinion, and it’s the internet – people be crazy on the internet.

Following an exchange with Mr Mac I made the decision to block his account. In the course of that discussion I was labelled a racist, an anti-Semite, and a misogynist. He even attempted to weaponise his sexuality against me, suggesting I hated him because he was “queer.” There was going to be no real discussion with the man. He claimed he was a seasoned hard-left campaigner and a trade union activist, and it was at this point it dawned on me I was being played. Rather than focus on the issues of the original debate – the deployment of a false accusation of antisemitism against a colleague, Juan Mac was throwing as much spurious dirt as he could lay his hands on in the hope something would stick, or that his baseless accusations would gain credibility by repetition and in so doing manufacture the perception that I was indeed one, some, or all of these things. Juan Mac earned his blocking.

However, this was not the end. Juan is a man on a mission. Tonight, when I arrived home from work, it was brought to my attention he was trying another strategy. He had been given a photograph of me posing with two other independentistas at the last AUOB march in Edinburgh. Now, from the apparent evidence of this picture, he was telling his followers (more on this below) that I was “associated with a known predator.” It was at this point, as I am sure you understand, I had to inform Police Scotland. He was accusing someone in my company for that photograph of being a “predator” – a term which we all understand to mean either paedophile or sexual predator. His implication was that I too was complicit in this by association.

Is the other man in the picture a paedophile or a “known predator?” No, certainly not to my knowledge and certainly not by any known criminal record. This man is simply a follower of my Twitter account who I met – and was happy to meet – for the first time at the Edinburgh march. Before the march I had tweeted an open invitation for followers to come and meet with me before the event. This man was one of a good number who dropped along that morning.

But all of this is textbook trolling. It follows a playbook used often by activists on the so-called hard left; first avoid the primary issue, launch a volley of nonsensical and dangerous racial and gendered accusations, and harass the author. Failing this, the playbook moves on to more personal types of abuse, which include targeting those around the target. This was precisely the method used by the Hasbara trolls employed by the Israeli government, and it has been studied well by the campaign organisers of leftist political parties and trade unions.

Why might I be interested in this troll’s followers? Well, they are quite interesting too. Juan Mac has 218 followers at the time of writing, a small account by any standard, but among his followers are the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Socialist Party, the left-wing “populist” website The New Pretender, and writers for the Labour-supporting blog The Red Robin. Interestingly, given the diminutive size of this account, it is also followed by the left-leaning blog Bella Caledonia, Stephen Paton, and Jenifer Jones – the PhD who claimed pro-independence Twitter was basically a nest of pro-Russian bots and trolls. It is also worthwhile noting that he is also followed by “Agent P,” one of the most active and vicious unionist trolls in Scotland. Scrolling down his followers, certainly when we consider his objective is to manufacture perspectives, it is clear that he is singing to his audience – a very particular audience.

This experience is not unique and Juan Mac is not alone. Pro-independence activism on the street and online poses a threat to the status quo. It threatens the once dominant party of Scotland – Labour, and so it will attract the attention of people like Juan Mac. He is not a “nobody.” It is evident from his followers that he is known and is considered useful to a fair few people who are engaged in the more public struggle to defend the union and Labour – and so the union. He seems to invite followers who many now consider fifth column to the independence movement, people who either have not sorted out the issues in their heads or who are actually working within the movement to undermine it. We live in strange times right now. There’s a lot going on. While not succumbing to corrosive paranoia, it is important that we keep our eyes open for dirty tricks. These trolls are dangerous, but they are useful in that they alert us to the wheels within wheels which keep the union turning.


The Psychology of Trolling

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5 thoughts on “Reading a Troll’s Playbook

  1. I’m so glad I’m not active on Twitter any longer. Hat tip to you, sir, for continuing the fight.

    p.s. is there some way you can contact me privately? I want to see if I can arrange to help sponsor this site & emailed you the other week but haven’t had a reply so I suspect I have the wrong details for you now.


  2. Interesting Jason, although having rightly highlighted the role of the Israeli state in previous psyops strategies, you fail to mention the British state equivalent, the 77th Brigade and their extensive online presence.


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