Professional trolls

Professional trolls December 2, 2014

Trolls–those who make harsh and nasty comments just to take over and disrupt discussions–are the bane of the internet.  It turns out, some trolls are paid for their work.

From Anne Applebaum, Another reason to avoid reading the comments – The Washington Post:

If you are reading this article on the Internet, stop afterward and think about it. Then scroll to the bottom and read the commentary. If there isn’t any, try a Web site that allows comments, preferably one that is very political. Then recheck your views.

Chances are your thinking will have changed, especially if you have read a series of insulting, negative or mocking remarks — as so often you will. Once upon a time, it seemed as if the Internet would be a place of civilized and open debate; now, unedited forums often deteriorate to insult exchanges. Like it or not, this matters: Multiple experiments have shown that perceptions of an article, its writer or its subject can be profoundly shaped by anonymous online commentary, especially if it is harsh. One group of researchers found that rude comments “not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” A digital analyst at Atlantic Media also discovered that people who read negative comments were more likely to judge that an article was of low quality and, regardless of the content, to doubt the truth of what it stated.

Some news organizations have responded by heavily curating comments. One Twitter campaigner, @AvoidComments, periodically reminds readers to ignore anonymous posters: “You wouldn’t listen to someone named Bonerman26 in real life. Don’t read the comments.” But none of that can prevent waves of insulting commentary from periodically washing over other parts of the Internet, infiltrating Facebook or overwhelming Twitter.

If all of this commentary were spontaneous, then this would simply be an interesting psychological phenomenon. But it is not. A friend who worked for a public relations company in Europe tells of companies that hire people to post, anonymously, positive words on behalf of their clients and negative words about rivals. Political parties of various kinds, in various countries, are rumored to do the same.

States have grown interested in joining the fray as well. Last year, Russian journalists infiltrated an organization in St. Petersburg that pays people to post at least 100 comments a day; an investigation earlier this year found that a well-connected businessman was paying Russian trolls to manage 10 Twitter accounts apiece with up to 2,000 followers. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Guardian of London admitted it was having trouble moderating what it called an “orchestrated campaign.” “Goodbye ‘Eddie,’ ” tweeted the Estonian president a few months ago, as he blocked yet another Twitter troll.

The Russian trolls have been well-documented. But others may be preparing to join them. An Iranian educational group, Tavaana, has lately found its Facebook page blocked thanks to what it suspects was the activity of Iranian trolls. Famously, the Chinese government monitors the Internet inside China, using hundreds of thousands of paid bloggers. It can’t be long before they work out how to do the same in English, or Korean, or other languages as well.

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