The time of the trolls

Worse, the internet was no longer the same thing for every user, as it its creators had intended it to be. Because of the hierarchical concept of online ratings, a post or video published by a big corporation or government gets more views in social media than a post by an ordinary user. The traditional concept of public trust, based on the authority and reputation, was thrown out of the window. Instead, tech giants run by CEOs with engineering backgrounds introduced a new concept of trust, based on something they had been taught to believe in – digits and numbers. The more clicks, hits and views you get, the higher the position you receive in the rating – and the more users would see your content.

In western countries, this new concept of public trust was counterbalanced by traditional media. But in Russia, the populace was completely defenseless. Trust in the traditional media had broken down too many years ago. Unable to check the authenticity of the emotional messages pumped at them online, ordinary Russian users not only consumed the message – they began sharing it. At this moment, at the latest, it had become clear that online political participation by ordinary citizens could have a devastating effect. Fake news (always emotional), smear campaigns, and crazy conspiracy theories flooded social media. Given the number of people sharing them, they became prominent enough to be reported by traditional media. At least one person who found a way to use it became president of the United States.

The global platforms were caught off guard. Their concept of trust was based on numbers of hits, views and clicks. They hadn’t envisioned that thousands of legit online users would post and share disinformation. What we’ve seen since then – above all revelations of Russia’s use of Facebook to manipulate public opinion during election campaigns in the US and Europe – is a painful manifestation of the complexity of the phenomenon. The investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election showed that trolling was never completely dependent on a technology like bots, nor that it was predominantly about Kremlin employees sitting somewhere in Russia manufacturing anti-Clinton propaganda. Rather, it was ordinary Americans and Europeans that were sharing the messages launched by trolls, and often posting them themselves (messages Russian trolls then went and promoted).

According to Robert Mueller’s indictment, Russia’s trolling operation in the US in 2016 had a monthly budget of only $1.25 million and even at its peak employed only around 80 people.(1) And yet, it was highly effective: Facebook testified that about 126 million Facebook users had seen Russian-linked content.(2) Which means that many people shared this content independently. Some attempts were made to fix the problem. In January 2018, Facebook began prioritizing ‘trustworthy’ news outlets on its stream of social media posts, in order to combat ‘sensationalism’ and ‘misinformation’.(3)

But the concept of public trust is so badly damaged that such attempts are unlikely to become a game changer. For one thing, who these days would trust Facebook to be sufficiently honest, sophisticated and transparent to prioritize news outlets correctly? And why should one delegate the decision on the prioritization of news and news outlets to Facebook? Most importantly, this method cannot deal with the question of what to do when millions of people suddenly start sharing something that is fake or offensive. The vox populi cannot be ignored or banned, even the ugly part of it; and in the brave new world, it cannot be removed from the internet for purely technical reasons.

1. Alexis C. Madrigal, “Russia’s Troll Operation Was Not That Sophisticated,” The Atlantic, 19 February 2018

2. Mike Isaac and Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone,” New York Times, 30 October 2017

3. Reuters, “Facebook to prioritize ‘high quality’, trustworthy news, Zuckerberg says,” Guardian, 19 January 2018

— Read more in Andrei Soldatov, “Paradoxes of participation: Democracy and the internet in Russia 1991–2018,” Eurozine (11 December 2018)