By Robert A. Vella
We bloggers on WordPress are fortunate to have so many intelligent, caring, and talented individuals among our ranks. In an outside world that seems to be deteriorating around us on a daily basis, it is comforting to share an inside world with such quality people. Because we are exceptional in this regard, and because our virtual community rests upon a social media platform, there are those who would seek to infiltrate it for various reasons. Yes, I’m talking about trolls.
Trolls are essentially agent provocateurs who work the internet. They can be highly organized and secretly supported by large institutional entities; or, they can be loose associations of likeminded people or even lone-wolfs who have some specific axe to grind. Regardless, trolls typically misrepresent themselves deliberately and pursue their aims through subterfuge and other clever tactics. No troll would ever intentionally reveal their true identities, their associations, or their real agenda and goals.
The most sophisticated trolls are difficult to spot especially for enlightened and open-minded bloggers who usually, or at least initially, give all commentary opinions and perspectives the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, sophisticated trolls are skilled in the art of subtle persuasion. They understand their target’s basic philosophical and psychological traits, and use specific tactics to exploit it such as appeals to emotionality and the allure of conceptual simplicity.
Unlike spammers and hackers, which are generally easier to identify and have material objectives (i.e. money, personal information, malicious cyber-attacks, etc.), trolls have more intangible objectives. Some are simply seeking attention. Some are waging ideological warfare. Some are looking to disrupt or undermine perceived adversaries. Some have even loftier aims. Some involve large media apparatuses, corporate entities, government agencies, and even sovereign nations.
Russia, headed by the Machiavellian leader Vladimir Putin, gained notoriety two years ago with its manipulation of public opinion through the media which helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. But, this wasn’t the only instance it tried to influence America’s internal affairs.
Soon, across town, Mica Grimm’s phone started buzzing. A leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, Grimm began receiving messages: “Look at Facebook. Check Facebook,” she recalled recently.
Grimm and other activists quickly made their way to where the shooting had occurred — later that night they protested outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul. The next morning, as Americans woke up to the news of Castile’s death, they also saw pictures of the growing demonstration outside the mansion.
But at the same time, plans for a different protest were being made on Facebook.
Around 8 a.m. ET on July 7th, less than ten hours after the shooting, a Facebook page began running ads targeted at people living near Minneapolis and promoting an event called “Justice for Philando Castile.”
The event was scheduled for the coming weekend and would take place outside the police department where the officer who shot Castile was based. Quickly, thousands of people expressed interest in attending.
But, to Grimm, something didn’t feel right.
“So the activists really know each other here,” Grimm told CNN. “We’ve seen each other’s faces, and if we don’t know each other, then we know someone who knows someone.”
No one in the tight-knit community of activists seemed to know who was behind the campaign.
The page, titled “Don’t Shoot,” looked like one run by a black activist group. It had a significant audience: More than 250,000 Facebook users followed it. It had a website and accounts on YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr.
But Mica thought the name “Don’t Shoot” was strange.
“When Mike Brown was first killed [in Ferguson in 2014], a lot of people were saying, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,'” she explained. But by 2016, she said, many Black Lives Matter activists were no longer using the chant because they felt it was submissive and they wanted to focus on language that they felt was more empowering.
Another local activist, Sam Tyler, also thought there was something unusual about the page. As experienced protest organizers, he and Grimm feared a demonstration with no leadership could descend into chaos.
Tyler began sending messages to the Don’t Shoot Facebook page. “Who are you involved with? Who do you have on the ground that’s working on setting this up?” he said he asked.
Whoever was behind Don’t Shoot responded. They didn’t say exactly who they were but they named-dropped some local groups they said were helping out with the protest. But when Tyler checked with those groups, they hadn’t heard of Don’t Shoot either.
The event continued to spread on Facebook.
Fearing things could get out of hand, Tyler and other activists held a meeting.
“We got together in a basement in south Minneapolis,” he told CNN, and they began messaging the page again. By that point they had learned the website associated with the Facebook page was registered to a seemingly false name and address.
“And after talking to them a little bit back and forth and realizing that they were completely making up everything that they had been saying,” Tyler explained. “We decided to present them either the ultimatum of either handing us administrative access to the event page or we were going to dissuade people, through a press release, through whatever means we had, of showing up to this event.”
It seemed as though Don’t Shoot had given in. They handed over control of the Facebook event to the local activists.
Grimm recalled, “Our solution was to take over the event and have our own marshals and have our own leaders, and a lot of other organizations helped us do that. Just to make sure that if people were going to show up, that people weren’t putting themselves in a position of danger.”
The event went ahead on Sunday, July 10, without incident.
As demonstrations continued, the weeks after Castile’s death were a busy time for Tyler and Grimm. Neither gave much more thought to Don’t Shoot.
That is, until 15 months later, when they got a call from CNN.
In September 2017, CNN uncovered a sham organization called “Blacktivist.” The group described itself as a black American activist campaign and had been active on social media for years. It even had a bigger following than the official Black Lives Matter Facebook page.
CNN confirmed Blacktivist was not a real American group, however. It was a troll operation run from 4,000 miles away in St. Petersburg, Russia, by a Kremlin-linked group known as the Internet Research Agency.
The revelations helped to show Russia’s use of social media to interfere in American life extended beyond the presidential election, and into efforts to exacerbate existing divisions in the U.S.
A few weeks later, in October 2017, CNN found another group posing as an organization of Black Lives Matter activists — “Don’t Shoot.”
Left of center politics – those who advocate for democracy, economic fairness, social justice, and other egalitarian principles – has always faced varied and powerful enemies. Authoritarians oppose its empowerment of ordinary citizens. Laissez-faire capitalists despise its condemnation of consolidated wealth. Racists resent its demand for uniform equality under the law. Such enemies are indeed relentless, but it is the political left’s inherent vulnerabilities which leave it exposed. Whereas right-wing authoritarians, anarcho-capitalists, and xenophobes of every type are single-minded, disciplined and resolute, the center-left is more broadminded, often disorderly, and frequently indecisive on many issues. In this new technological era of instant communication, access to information, and connective social media, the effectiveness of trolling obviously favors one side over the other… and, that is exactly what we’re seeing.
Beware, and be aware.