Stop calling them 'Russian troll farms'

The phrase "Russian troll farms" has become ubiquitous. It's on ...

Posted: Aug 19, 2018 11:12 AM
Updated: Aug 19, 2018 11:12 AM

The phrase "Russian troll farms" has become ubiquitous. It's on network television. It's in leading newspapers. It's on the lips of US senators.

But it's a misleading phrase — dangerously misleading.

2016 Presidential election

2018 Midterm elections

Agriculture

Agriculture, forestry, and commercial fishing

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Continents and regions

Democracy

Donald Trump

Eastern Europe

Elections (by type)

Elections and campaigns

Europe

Forms of government

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Internet and WWW

Investigations

Midterm elections

Moscow

Political candidates

Political Figures - US

Politics

Russia

Russia meddling investigation

Technology

US Federal elections

US federal government

US Presidential elections

White House

Arts and entertainment

Celebrity and pop culture

Government departments and authorities

Intelligence services

International relations and national security

National security

Robert Mueller

The Russian actors who, through the Internet, interfered with America's 2016 presidential election and are again interfering with our 2018 midterm elections aren't anything like the "trolls" who've been a scourge of the Internet for two decades. Until we understand the difference, we won't understand the threat our democracy is facing.

Let's start with how these things came to be called "troll farms" in the first place. As the extent of Moscow's interference in the 2016 election came to light, the most fascinating element (beyond the possibility of collusion by the Trump team itself) was the idea of hundreds of Russians spending their hours in front of dimly lit computer screens, feeding Americans deliberately polarizing, false stories about our own country. We needed a word for bad actors online.

So, we turned to "trolls." This was familiar lingo to those who'd tracked online behavior since the emergence of the Internet. Many people gave in to the temptation to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to harass, pester, and bully others — often complete strangers. Those who did were said to be engaged in "trolling." Soon those who picked unwinnable fights and bullied victims for the sheer sake of bullying them became "trolls."

What trolls are — and are not

Why do trolls do it? Professor Whitney Phillips, in a landmark book on trolls, explains that "trolls take perverse joy in ruining complete strangers' days." Ultimately, Phillips writes, "trolls are motivated by what they call lulz, a particular kind of unsympathetic, ambiguous laughter." They're in it for fun, even if a sickening form of fun that comes at others' expense. And trolls are fundamentally disorganized: They act as a flash mob, grouping together spontaneously to troll different targets and then going their own way.

Those whom Moscow employed to interfere with American democracy bear neither of these hallmarks. Quite the opposite. The Russian tweeters, Facebook posters, and YouTube commenters who weaponized social media in 2016 weren't in it for the fun or the laughter.

To the contrary, the individual grunts were in it for the money; and their bosses in the Kremlin were in it to destabilize American democracy and paralyze the United States. What's more, there was serious organization to the effort, with deliberate chains of command, subunits focused on particular messaging themes, careful cultivations of fake personas, and other specific tradecraft and tactics that were repeated and refined. As one former so-called Russian troll told the Washington Post, "My opinions were already written for me."

A deliberate disinformation campaign

This was, all told, a disinformation campaign carefully organized and managed by state security forces. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of Russia's Internet Research Agency, which was registered with the Russian Government, and related Russian entities with Russian government contracts describes deliberate campaign planning and execution such as sending individuals to American soil to gather intelligence on what would become the campaign's audience; building a computer infrastructure designed to mask the Russian origins of the campaign's messages; coordinating activities with "unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign" to maximize the campaign's impact; and ensuring funding for the private firms that were key parts of the campaign's architecture.

The Agency itself was tidily organized into divisions that included a management group, a data analysis department, a graphics department, a search-engine optimization department, an information technology department, and a finance department.

Moreover, a separate indictment obtained by Mueller of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign described in detail phishing attacks, money laundering, and the attempted hacking of state elections boards, all in service of the Kremlin's overall election interference campaign and all involving Russian government officials themselves.

To call those who were part of this elaborate architecture "troll farms" is to give entirely the wrong impression by suggesting that the motivation and organization bore some resemblance to lulz-seeking, disorganized Internet hooligans. The ranks of Moscow's social media army were nothing of the sort.

The difference isn't merely semantic. It's conceptual, and it's critical to protecting the health of our democracy. The best way to deal with trolls — real trolls — is to ignore them. That takes away their fun. It stalls their momentum. It leads them to look for other targets — or, better still, to turn on each other.

The opposite is true for a sophisticated state actor like the Kremlin. If Americans ignore what the Russians did to corrupt our democracy in 2016 — as President Trump, sitting in Helsinki face-to-face with Vladimir Putin, insisted we should do — then we're sure to see more of the same from Moscow.

Four ways to fight back

Indeed, US intelligence community chiefs have told us we're seeing more interference already as we head into the 2018 midterm elections. Recognizing Moscow's assault on American democracy as a goal-driven, coordinated activity entirely undeserving of the label "trolling" reveals the elements of an initial response that we still desperately need in place. First is better information-sharing between government and the tech sector on the latest trends and tactics so that both can be prepared to respond more swiftly and effectively.

Second is a set of new laws and regulations that would inject greater transparency into online political advertising. Third is experimentation by the tech sector with more aggressive, proactive ways to prevent disinformation campaigns from infecting their platforms. Fourth is punishment and thus deterrence of the Kremlin itself through tougher financial sanctions and continuing criminal indictments.

Strategic effectiveness begins with conceptual clarity. So, let's stop calling them "troll farms" and start calling them what they are: the Kremlin's disinformation army.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 77565

Reported Deaths: 3105
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion16304733
Lake7840283
Elkhart499287
Allen4103164
St. Joseph368183
Hamilton2941104
Vanderburgh208215
Hendricks1972109
Cass18099
Johnson1800119
Porter139139
Clark133350
Tippecanoe126312
Madison104866
LaPorte95730
Howard93865
Kosciusko87212
Bartholomew84447
Floyd83750
Marshall80123
Monroe77732
Delaware76852
Vigo75213
Dubois71812
Noble70829
Boone70446
Hancock69439
Jackson6065
Warrick60030
Shelby57228
LaGrange56910
Grant53230
Dearborn52228
Morgan49235
Henry46020
Clinton4564
Wayne40210
White38011
Montgomery36321
Lawrence35827
Harrison35524
Decatur34732
Putnam3288
Daviess28420
Miami2792
Scott27810
Jasper2592
Greene25634
Franklin24915
Gibson2434
DeKalb2424
Jennings23212
Ripley2208
Steuben2173
Fayette2057
Carroll2033
Perry18813
Posey1810
Starke1817
Orange17924
Wabash1795
Wells1782
Fulton1742
Jefferson1722
Knox1681
Whitley1606
Tipton15416
Sullivan1521
Washington1481
Clay1415
Spencer1393
Randolph1325
Huntington1303
Newton12110
Adams1202
Owen1101
Jay940
Rush914
Pulaski841
Fountain762
Brown752
Blackford662
Pike660
Ohio656
Benton630
Vermillion610
Parke591
Switzerland560
Martin500
Crawford480
Union410
Warren251
Unassigned0207

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 105426

Reported Deaths: 3755
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin19124533
Cuyahoga13999519
Hamilton9917260
Lucas5544324
Montgomery4544101
Summit3712224
Butler307064
Marion295245
Mahoning2644258
Pickaway240442
Stark1931142
Warren187739
Lorain186777
Columbiana169960
Trumbull1578111
Fairfield144933
Delaware137819
Licking136751
Clark121815
Lake115443
Wood110158
Clermont98111
Medina97736
Miami88139
Allen81746
Tuscarawas80114
Portage78063
Greene74212
Mercer66813
Belmont62826
Richland62612
Erie61928
Ashtabula58046
Madison58010
Wayne56759
Geauga56545
Ross5204
Darke42529
Huron4135
Hancock4103
Sandusky40717
Ottawa40527
Athens3642
Holmes3316
Lawrence3230
Auglaize2866
Union2771
Scioto2601
Muskingum2561
Seneca2424
Jefferson2403
Preble2192
Shelby2194
Knox2189
Putnam21517
Washington21222
Coshocton1999
Champaign1922
Morrow1852
Hardin18012
Crawford1775
Clinton1746
Highland1692
Logan1692
Perry1643
Fulton1581
Ashland1563
Defiance1554
Wyandot1559
Brown1502
Williams1393
Fayette1260
Henry1242
Hocking1229
Guernsey1217
Carroll1145
Monroe9418
Pike800
Gallia781
Jackson780
Van Wert732
Paulding720
Adams682
Meigs630
Vinton322
Morgan310
Harrison261
Noble190
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 68°
Angola
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 64°
Huntington
Scattered Clouds
67° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 67°
Decatur
68° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 68°
Van Wert
68° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 68°
Weekend Storm Chances
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events