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Trolling and distrust in the Web itself

3 min read

Read a fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine about the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization of trolls that create fake accounts to spread Russian government propaganda, which also apparently includes a sub-group that uses elaborate methods to spread chaos in the United States. One goal is to create distrust of the Internet as a whole, an advantage to some when the Internet has recently been the only means for opposition groups to spread information:

By working every day to spread Kremlin propaganda, the paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction. “The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” Volkov said, when we met in the office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “You have to remember the Internet population of Russia is just over 50 percent. The rest are yet to join, and when they join it’s very important what is their first impression.”

Of course, I went to Wikipedia to find out more. But of course, Wikipedia itself is particularly vulnerable to sockpuppetry and to debates that attempt to poison the well (for example). I don't have the time to sort through the whole thing at the moment (ah, and isn't that the thing?), but here are a few relevant articles:

  • Trolls from Olgino, an informal term used to described the organizations that troll on behalf of the government
  • Web brigades, another generic term used to describe sockpuppetry groups. This article in particular has had edit wars; some wish to delete the article, rename it, or make it about allegations of sockpuppetry, or about a "conspiracy theory".
  • Cyberwarfare in Russia, a more generic article that also touches on denial of service/hacking, surveillance and persecution. This article has also been renamed several times and edit wars about "allegations", settling on this title which doesn't describe that it's about government-sponsored activities.
  • 50 Cent Party, the name used for Chinese people hired to post supportive comments on social media. This article doesn't seem to suffer from the same debates/warring in the articles on apparent Russian equivalents.
  • Operation Earnest Voice, a short article on a US government propaganda project.

(I've created a redirect on Wikipedia for "Internet Research Agency" to the Trolls from Olgino article for the meantime. I was surprised that searching Wikipedia for the name didn't turn up anything.)

It's not clear to me how to fight this problem in general. It seems like it's going to become increasingly common, whether it's Gamergate or nation-states. Wikipedia is clearly not sufficiently prepared. Social media seem quite vulnerable to sockpuppetry, to piling on and to rapid spread of misinformation (whether intentional or not) with little curation or editing. I'd be interested in seeing research on the topic and proposals/prototypes for addressing it.