Bots, Trolls, and Agents, Oh My!

These aren’t your fairy tale trolls fishing for coins. These trolls are all too real, living in the dark and deep space of the online world, posting hit-pieces and misinformed content intended to influence your thinking. Their words are filled with purpose, intended to push a specific political agenda or to gain a competitive advantage over the competition. Many of these trolls have gone unnoticed, but with recent political and business scandals the spotlight has finally caught a glimpse of these monsters behind the online madness.  

Trolling wasn’t always like this. The term ‘internet trolling’ used to simply refer to people online who left comments that were purposefully curated in a way to trigger negative emotional reactions, often times including various forms of online bullying. But with the rise in importance of online traffic and social activity the lords of trolling have shifted from pimple-faced teenagers to corporate CEO's and greedy politicians.

Who Are These Trolls?

It’s important to know that these ‘trolls’ are not always human. In most cases these trolls are simply online bots programmed by foreign engineers. Their makeup is rather simple as they are coded to repost, retweet, and like content that features keywords they were programmed to mine for. Knowing this is important because it can be easy to get emotional or frustrated while surfing social media platforms and reading negative and distasteful content, but once you understand that there is a strong possibility that the content was created or reposted by a bot programmed by engineers who were given a specific agenda it can be easier to move on with your day.

With AI and machine-learning capabilities these trolls have no boundaries, as they can be used for just about anything. Want to discredit a public figure? Publish a fake article and have trolls retweet and repost it. Hoping to influence a foreign election? Build a secret HQ and have your trolls post negative content of the candidate you hope to defeat. Does your business need a boost? Unleash trolls to leave negative comments on your competitors most visited platforms! The possibilities are endless!

Kremlin Bots Infiltrating Your News Feed

Our current president may proclaim that Russian based social media trolls are ‘fake news’ but there is nothing fake about the damaging results these foreign internet hackers have recently had on our democratic processes. Industry leading social platforms like Facebook and Twitter have both publicly stated they hosted political propaganda distributed by foreign trolls working with a specific agenda, with Twitter admitting to hosting over 500,000 retweets carried out by Russian bots weeks before the 2016 election, hoping to give Donald Trump one last final push.

This Russian-like internet meddling has been exposed in 16 other countries in just the past two years, greatly reducing the overall freedom and security behind the everyday internet that is used by billions of people across the globe.

By now you’re hopefully wondering what’s being done to fight these accounts who spread faulty information, but for such a complex problem, the solution is horribly simplified. In response to national headlines Facebook and Twitter have pledged to allocate more resources towards monitoring their platforms. Simply put, the two platforms are manually deleting accounts that spread false information or can be linked to foreign entities hoping to sway public opinion. So far, Facebook has deleted 273 accounts suspected to be under Russian control. Twitter has followed the same path, deleting over 200 accounts and erasing over 200,000 tweets. There has been little to no concrete evidence on how these platforms will stop these attacks in the near future, all a person will need is a new username and IP address.

Misconstrued Views

It’s easy to point fingers at Putin and claim foul-play. It’s even easier to target Russia as being the country who is working the hardest to undermine the democratic processes of developed countries. But what Russia did is what countries have been trying to do for decades, even centuries. The US has inserted their own candidates across the globe, many of which turned out to be ruthless dictators who left pools of blood in their own homeland. The Chinese have recently been caught meddling with the small archipelago nation known as the The Republic of Maldives, hoping to own and control land that is currently in the hands of natives and their local government. Espionage is nothing new within the political institutions that hold up our world governments. Countries spy on one another, even the quiet ones like Canada have been linked to espionage in faraway South American countries. So, what does this exactly mean? It means that as a society we shouldn’t be shocked that a foreign country is using social media as a tool to influence our thinking and viewpoints on important subject matters. Spying to potentially gain political clout and influence is a governmental tactic that has been used since the dawn of time, or at least since the Greeks stopped trusting each other. The best part about social media is that spying to gain your wanted range of influence isn’t even necessary. Users put their viewpoints, opinions, and emotional responses to world events on a daily basis. You don’t have to plant a spy or secretly listen in on conversations to gain an understanding for how a certain demographic feels about a current issue (Facebook and Twitter can do all of that for you!) You simply have to take the data in, analyze it, and then unleash your wizard-like engineers who can make algorithms dance to the sound of online trolling. Leaders of the world and political figureheads must strive to create a more open and robust world dialogue that encourages a greater sense of transparency if we wish to truly fight back against these trolls and power-hungry politicians looking to gain more influence.

Can’t Oust A Troll If It Looks Like A Barbie

Facebook and Twitter have rightfully taken quite a bit of backlash since the story of Russian meddling first broke. Users, politicians, and interested foreign officials have all begged the question: how could these social media giants’ servers be so weak, and how could they not notice hundreds of thousands of fake accounts? But these trolls weren’t your typical burner accounts. These trolls were sophisticated, strategically leaving breadcrumb trails of data to prove their legitimacy and trick servers into believing that they are real humans. They did this by incorporating a number of features, including:

  • Fake drivers license

  • Attached social security number

  • History of old posts

  • A range of photos: showcasing both old and recent pictures

  • Financial accounts tied to widely used platforms like Paypal

By using these strategies Russia was able to mask their bots, tricking the online servers and social media admins into believing their automated trolls were real-life humans. Moving forward, social platforms like Facebook should be pressured to allocate more resources towards building smarter algorithms that are better equipped to find and eliminate automated bots looking to cause trouble.

What You Can Do

Delete Facebook. Read your local newspaper. Find a national news station not named Fox News or CNN and try to avoid sensationalism - meaning, don’t bite for click-bait articles with headlines that beg you to discover more. There is nobody in the private sector claiming they have a solution to stop online bullying or prevent foreign trolls from undermining our democracy - mainly because doing so would potentially break our current freedom of speech laws. Facebook and Twitter will say “we’re doing everything we can” but they aren’t. They are for-profit companies, with a load of wealthy investors expecting millions of dollars to come out of their return of investments. Trolls won’t go away, bots won’t stop lurking your news feed, and social media will only get worse as time goes on. The best way to protect yourself is to leave the virtual world all together.

Okay.

You don’t have to delete Facebook, and if you want to watch CNN or Fox News that’s fine too. But here are three simple things you can do to help protect yourself from falling for troll bait in the near future.

  1. Don’t get your news from a social media platform.

    1. More than 50% of users on Twitter and Facebook are using social media outlets as their #1 source for news. These platforms were not built on the foundation of being an informative news site and are easy to corrupt and manipulate. Stick with a more trusted, objective publication like the Wall Street Journal, NPR Economist, or BBC.

  2. Question the source and narrative

    1. If reading an article filled with buzzwords meant to trigger emotional reactions, ask the question: who gains the most from this narrative? Check other articles posted by the platform, if you notice a pattern of content aimed towards hurting the legitimacy of one party or candidate then chances are the news you’re reading is not entirely accurate

  3. Check the users history

    1. When looking at a Tweet or Facebook post, click on the user who posted it and see what their content looks like. Do they post photos of their cats and status updates that nobody really cares about? Or do they share articles that are all heavily slanted towards one specific side? The majority of bots that are found online are not sophisticated enough to share regular content on top of the content meant to damage a specific person or idea. They are programmed to repost strictly based off tags, keywords, and general categories. They can trick a machine but they can’t trick a humans eyes.

Conclusion

World powers aren’t going to stop spying on one another. Espionage will always take place in our political institutions, and online trolling for political objectives will only increase as nations better understand how to program these bots for their competitive advantages. As consumers, and social media users, we must understand what businesses and political leaders have to gain by pushing certain agendas through online traffic. A greater sense of bipartisanship would be the best start towards combating these online trolls: Russia was so effective because Americans are currently so polarized - you’re either a deplorable or a snowflake. We must begin to work on opening a more objective dialogue that leaves emotions behind. At the end of the day, we’re all human.