Do internet trolls really matter?

 

We’ve all come across bots on here on Instagram. You know the ones that say “Wow! You look great” when you’ve just posted a photo of a massive dog turd. Oh do I? Why thank you!

Or ever had a conversation with what *seems* to be real person, yet whose account is dubious at best (no pictures, zero followers, etc). So what are these accounts? And the question is, do they really matter?

**Drum roll please** Propaganda is information used to influence an audience to further an agenda - often presenting half truths to encourage a particular marrying of one-sided information - or by using loaded messaging/imagery to produce an emotional (and not rational) response. 

Who remembers when Sudanese soldiers massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum (Sudan) in June? What you might not know, however, is that days later a vague digital marketing company in Cairo garrisoned a second front - “keyboard warriors” hired to praise Sudan’s military on social media. This obscure Egyptian company (run by a former military officer and self-described expert on “internet warfare”) paid random people USD180 a month to write pro-military messages using fake Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, including using specific hashtags and talking points.

Propaganda has been used for hundreds of years. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era; British colonialism; the US Civil War; first and second World Wars et al. It’s not a new thing. However with social media, the dissemination of propaganda has taken a rather drastic leap forward. Propaganda now comes directly into our feeds. It uses our name and comments on our photos. Yep, propaganda has been personalised, promoted, pimped and propelled, and peeps are falling for it left, right and centre!

If you’re an American, it is extremely likely that you’ve been exposed to Russian propaganda online. In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook estimated 126 million US users saw posts, stories or other content created by Russian-government-backed accounts. As well as this, 20 million users were exposed to this Russian content on Facebook-owned Instagram. That makes 146 million people. Imma just let that sink in a little.

Author Jonathan Haidt has a fascinating theory on ‘hive mentality’, whereby humans become increasingly accepting of violence in the name of our mass identity (i.e. we become radicalised). This is what the Russian trolls were banking on. They attempted to set our socially constructed mass identities against each other in order to radicalise race against race, religion against religion (or against non-religion), political party A against political party B. 

Vulnerability to social media propaganda means we ALL need to increase our own personal awareness of social media’s radicalising potential - both for ourselves, for your children and for our communities.

MY ADVICE:

1) get out more (seriously!)

2) take social media commentary with a grain of salt (well, expect for mine, obvs)

3) read more books/op eds from diverse writers, from various background, races and nations

and 4) develop a healthy dose of cynicism about online political commentary! 


Remember
: to be a true political thinker you have to learn and acknowledge the truths and un-truths on all sides of the political landscape. Without this, you’re just playing to a propagandist narrative and being another predictable cog in the wheel. Side bar: sorry for ruining your game Vlad!