Russian troll army

Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article (link) by Adrian Chen about a strange new Russian plot. It seems that Russia has, no kidding, deployed an army of Internet trolls tasked among other things with making Putin look good and striking fear into the hearts of Americans.

For example, last September 11 a bunch of Twitter tweets and other messages suggested that St Mary Parish in Louisiana was endangered by toxic fumes from an accident at a chemical plant. There were eyewitness accounts and even surveillance footage showing the explosion and a supposed screen captures from the CNN website. Terrorists were said to have taken credit for it. But it was all fake.

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

The article offers reasons to think that a Russian agency based in St Petersburg is behind this an other elaborate pranks as well as more mundane examples of trolling. Anyone who has spent time on line is aware that a lot of commenting seems organized. Sometimes the commenters are simply loose networks of enthusiasts for some cause or other, sometimes more seriously organized volunteers, and sometimes hired PR people or outright propagandists. It’s hard to tell which is which.

(Fortunately my blog seems way too far under the radar to be affected by this sort of thing. Automated comment spam is another matter. I routinely delete over a hundred attempts at comment spam a day.)

While I object to pranks and hoaxes that might really hurt people, being a Russian Internet troll sounds like a better than a lot of things. If people ever catch on that Ann Coulter says insane crap not because she believes it but in order to get publicity and sell books to the pathetic, she could always find work as a Russian Internet troll.

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