SEVERE WX : Severe Thunderstorm Watch - Severe Thunderstorm Warning View Alerts

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.

Cases: 767409

Reported Deaths: 13980
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1054251805
Lake569191030
Allen42938698
St. Joseph37313568
Hamilton37298426
Elkhart29749470
Tippecanoe23479230
Vanderburgh23201405
Porter19573327
Johnson18822392
Hendricks18072321
Madison13548346
Clark13533198
Vigo12834256
LaPorte12566225
Monroe12546178
Delaware11143198
Howard10672237
Kosciusko9777124
Hancock8740150
Bartholomew8262157
Warrick8069157
Floyd8027182
Grant7366181
Wayne7233201
Boone7184105
Morgan6910143
Marshall6332116
Dubois6274118
Cass6090111
Dearborn601278
Noble599290
Henry5947111
Jackson516377
Shelby510898
Lawrence4922127
Gibson462696
Montgomery458192
Clinton455255
DeKalb455285
Harrison453577
Whitley415745
Huntington415582
Steuben410660
Miami405573
Jasper401155
Knox388391
Putnam385062
Wabash369083
Adams352956
Ripley351271
Jefferson341886
White339654
Daviess3090100
Wells303581
Greene293485
Decatur292593
Fayette286364
Posey281735
Scott280058
LaGrange277572
Clay273348
Washington254037
Randolph247783
Jennings239449
Spencer238731
Fountain235250
Starke229859
Owen222659
Sullivan221343
Fulton208345
Jay202932
Carroll197322
Orange191156
Perry189739
Vermillion180844
Rush177527
Tipton172747
Franklin171935
Parke155216
Pike141734
Blackford138032
Pulaski123648
Newton123036
Benton109715
Brown106043
Crawford105616
Martin92515
Warren87715
Switzerland8348
Union73610
Ohio58111
Unassigned0428

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1123964

Reported Deaths: 20490
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1304331493
Cuyahoga1172542263
Hamilton824421261
Montgomery535421062
Summit489021014
Lucas43747834
Butler40000614
Stark33837939
Lorain26029510
Warren24919312
Mahoning22710613
Lake21472396
Clermont20391261
Delaware19143138
Licking16863227
Trumbull16801492
Fairfield16793207
Medina15861276
Greene15528254
Clark14352308
Portage13432218
Wood13343201
Allen12049245
Richland11740213
Miami11019228
Wayne9258228
Columbiana9204236
Muskingum9133137
Pickaway8750123
Tuscarawas8718255
Marion8710140
Erie8135166
Ashtabula7281179
Hancock7048135
Ross7024165
Geauga6962153
Scioto6701108
Belmont6222179
Lawrence5947104
Union590949
Jefferson5725162
Huron5638122
Sandusky5488130
Darke5444131
Seneca5377128
Washington5371111
Athens526960
Auglaize507487
Mercer491185
Shelby482797
Knox4614113
Madison447566
Ashland444898
Defiance438799
Fulton436375
Putnam4354104
Crawford4114111
Brown409662
Preble3949107
Logan392179
Clinton390766
Ottawa375881
Highland366068
Williams356678
Champaign349660
Guernsey330554
Jackson321354
Perry298850
Morrow294743
Fayette289150
Hardin279365
Henry277167
Coshocton272961
Holmes2725102
Van Wert252265
Adams249858
Gallia249850
Pike244737
Wyandot235257
Hocking222963
Carroll201249
Paulding179942
Meigs151240
Monroe137945
Noble137739
Harrison115238
Morgan111624
Vinton87317
Unassigned04
Fort Wayne
Partly Cloudy
74° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 74°
Angola
Partly Cloudy
75° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 75°
Huntington
Partly Cloudy
74° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 74°
Decatur
Partly Cloudy
74° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 74°
Van Wert
Partly Cloudy
74° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 74°
A complex system brings the potential for strong to severe thunderstorms to the region early Thursday morning.
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events