Professional trolls get paid to stir up trouble, and they are experts at covering their tracks. Here’s who’s paying them, and why.
Battling professional trolls is akin to the singular, goat-gobbling monster versus an army of the same with the weapons to match. Think you’ll want to cross that bridge? Neither do the employers of professional trolls, which not only exist, but are more common than you’d think.
This may sound like a fun job, and it very well may be. In Russia, hundreds of professional “trolls” are employed to fill comment and forum quotas with what is essentially pro-government propaganda.
How professional trolls work
Comments can sometimes be the best part of the news, adding a layer of social dialogue not native to traditional journalism. But it can also be extremely damaging — a de facto platform for opposition to air their grievances. Or, ahem, be paid to do so.
Giving the people a voice is one thing, but it’s entirely another when a paid propagandist masquerades as “one of us.” It can be effective, too: comments at the end of articles have been shown in numerous studies to shape reader opinion in meaningful ways. Some even claim that professional trolls influenced the US presidential election, perhaps helping Donald Trump to win.
That’s the entire point of professional trolls, some of which allegedly operate one or more fake personas on social media, blogs, and boards to spout their employers’ “talking points” which are more often than not political in nature. In the case of some Russian trolls, the intent is to sow confusion, which given the state of the Internet, is certainly not hard.
Because professional troll jobs are secretive in nature, it’s difficult to know for sure where exactly they operate, or how many. But, thanks to leaks and investigative work, we know about the following:
- In Russia: According to various sources, some first-hand, hundreds of people work in St. Petersburg for the Internet Research center, one of various pro-Kremlin centers that pays various departments of workers to fill comment quotas, fill blogs and forums, and target US and Ukrainian articles.
- In the UK: Leaks of the UK’s intelligence operations revealed a covert unit designed to systematically “control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse” through fake Facebook accounts, spoofed emails, and more.
- In China: China famously has paid a growing number of government bloggers and commenters within the Great Firewall to dispel pro-government information. It’s referred to as the “50 cent club” for the alleged pay per comment. Paid citizens are thought to number in the hundreds of thousands.
- In America: Left-wing groups, right-wing groups, and multi-billion dollar corporations alike have been accused of hiring people to manipulate online discourse, whether through false ratings of books and movies, or arguing on forums. There have even been first-hand accounts of such ex-trolls, though the validity remains unconfirmed.
In recent years professional trolls – and even non-human troll bots– have become especially adept at seeding internet conspiracy theories. In an article about trolls by the research organization PEW, various experts speculate that trolling may get much worse in the future.
What does it mean?
To some, the revelation that any average troll could be a paid propagandist is a terrifying notion. Some say professional trolls put the integrity of the Internet at stake, and that the days of an open and free Internet are numbered as government control gets stronger.
But this may be a slightly paranoid take on what is, admittedly, a troubling possibility. More transparent comment systems and forums could help, but disallowing anonymity is hardly the best solution.
Meanwhile, some companies and brands may enjoy a perverse traffic bump from trolls. Depending on their business model, trolls and the flame wars they start can bring in revenue-producing traffic to a web site.
Uncovering a troll army can be a risky proposition, as one journalist in Finland found out after trying to expose a troll factory. Some of the trolls retaliated, using social media and emails to vilifying and harass the journalist.
Whether or not you choose to read or engage with the comments of could-be trolls, skepticism of anonymous online posters is always a good idea. Because at the end of the day, you just never know whose payroll they could be on – or even if they are just a troll bot.
Cover photo courtesy of JD Hancock via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic