Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. Propaganda is not a new phenomenon. However, the digital age has given rise to a new form of warfare, in which organised groups attack each other’s online communications in order to control and shape public opinion.
When, in 2015, a "troll den" was revealed in St Petersburg, Russia, by under-cover journalist Lyudmila Savchuk, these practices took on a much more serious and sinister character.
The Internet and Social Media have become increasingly important as vehicles for opinions and political messages. Disagreements are an inevitable, and freedom of speech is an essential and cherished fundamental right. However, we have to ask whether some of the new practices go beyond the cut and thrust of political debate, and abuse that freedom by seeking to deny it to others.
Freedom is Slavery
Savchuk was employed in the 'troll den', officially known as the Internet Research Agency, to write blog posts, and to submit comments to blogs written by other people. There were around 400 people in the agency, whose blogs and comments were subject to specific guidelines according to Savchuk:
"A 'technical assignment' is when you get a piece of news and there is an explanation of how to present it [in a blog]. Who to praise, who to curse and what conclusions you need to bring the reader to."
The trolls were relatively well paid, but their wages were subject to penalties if their articles were poorly written or did not follow the guidelines.
Ignorance is Strength
This 'troll den' appears to be an extension of a well-established propaganda machine into the new media sector, using modern technology both within and outside of Russian borders in a way that is reminiscent to Winston Smith's job in Orwell's 1984.
The operation has been compared to the propaganda of the Soviet Union by the Telegraph and Rebaltica. The main difference being that the Soviet Union used to target political ideologies, while the Internet Research Agency targets anyone who doesn't agree with President Putin. Anti-Putin, Kremlin or Russian posts on social media get flagged and reported by the agency. They are then systematically attacked in a form of cyber-harassment.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg to find a way to stop Ukrainian posts concerning Crimea and other Russian-related issues from being reported or blocked for no reason. The Ukrainian people were asked to respond to an online Q&A from Facebook, and submitted many posts suggesting, for example
"...separate administration for the Ukrainian segment, block abuse reports from Russia, or maybe just monitor [top Ukrainian bloggers] more carefully...but somehow help us please!"
The Ukraine was not the only target for the trolls. Angela Merkel's newly created Instagram account was 'attacked' by comments in "Cyrillic or by Russian sounding account names" comparing her images to Hitler in his 'bunker years'. The only photo on the account that received any positive comments was one depicting Merkel alongside Vladimir Putin, where she was ignored while Putin received elegiac praise.
Marat Burkkhard, another ex-troll gone public, has said that the same was done to US President Barack Obama, and that he was a ‘top subject’.
When 'victims' try to purge poisonous comments, the trolls merely repost the same comments and it becomes an impossible task and a wasted effort.
War is Peace
The activities of this agency are a matter of concern. At best they are deliberately distorting public debate in an attempt to impose a particular world view. Yet, they may be worse than that and genuinely qualify for the epithet "hybrid warfare".
On September 11 2015, three months after Savchuk and other ex-trolls went public with their experiences, a Chemical factory in Louisiana was falsely reported as having blown up. These reports led to mass panic on Social Media and serious media attention. The plant owners were left desperately trying to calm the situation; addressing a problem that had never, in fact, existed. Similarly, after the first Ebola cases were reported in the US, the reaction on social media, with the trending hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, was so strong that people were given the impression that the State of Atlanta had been overrun by the disease. Similar panic-attacks were observed on the subject of police brutality, a very sensitive topic in the United States. All of these incidents were found to have been fuelled by falsified CNN television broadcasts.
The New York Time journalist who wrote the article about the extent of the troll's devastation, became a victim of the harassment himself after an interview with current troll, Kristina Aitova. She instigated a meeting between the journalist and a well-known Neo-Nazi, Alexei Maximov, in order to discredit him.
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities Voltaire
This deliberate and systematic approach to misinformation denies people access to any objective truth and then preys on their fears in order to control them. As the fear is unfounded, and the events are unreal, Governments cannot solve the problem and can be portrayed as being weak. People will then turn to a stronger leader who, in the present case, will look like Vladimir Putin. In this way that trolling is analogous to act of war.
An Eye for An Eye Will Make the Whole World Blind
It is hard to draw a clear line between legitimate debate and unacceptable propaganda. The regulator cannot require everyone to tell the truth or prevent people from lying. We live in an age of subjective truth where everyone is entitled to an opinion. The real wrong in this case is not what people are saying but the fact that they are attempting to prevent others from speaking.
The way to fight this war is not to attack it head on, fighting fire with fire. We have three weapons with which to fight back:
The Nature of Trolls: Folklore tells us that when trolls come into contact with sunlight, they turn to stone. Transparency is the best weapon of all. We should open up the den to the light and show the trolls for what they are.
Knowledge is Power: We now know that these trolls exist. The fact that these people have left the den and publicised its actions means that we can prepare for any slander that will hit the West, the Ukraine or any other new victim that is chosen.
Unity is Strength: This core maxim, at the heart of the European Union, is perhaps the largest and most effective weapon of them all. Sharing our knowledge, our abilities as one block is perhaps what has prevented the trolls from infiltrating European Cyber Defenses, wreaking havoc and instilling fear in the hearts of European citizens. By holding onto our democratic, egalitarian values, these people pose no threat to us.