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News

Invasion of the troll armies: from Russian Trump supporters to Turkish state stooges

We don’t know who they are, or what their mission is. We only know that there are thousands of them out there, pretending to be us. They may be at home, or in special offices, or sitting beside you on the train. They use social media, and write blogs and comments. Some of them may visit the bottom of this article.

You can hire your own troll army if you have the cash. In 2011 the PR firm Bell Pottinger told undercover journalists that they could “create and maintain third-party blogs”, and spruce up Wikipedia profiles and Google search rankings. Indeed marketing has a rich history of so-called “astroturfing”, which is laying down fake grassroots. Take Forest, “the voice and friend of the smoker”, which at least admits in nearly invisible small print that it is paid for by the tobacco industry.

Now, however, manipulating social media has become part of the business of government. It may yet influence how governments are formed. Recent reports suggest that many of Donald Trump’s most fervent online supporters are not themselves Americans, but Russians being paid by their government to help him win. One told Samantha Bee that she pretends to be a housewife from Nebraska. Why she would confess it now is unexplained, but when you look around it begins to feel like everybody does it. It’s just that no two countries’ methods are the same.

China
The existence of the wumao dang or “50 Cent Party” is not a secret in China, but then it is hard to employ up to two million people secretly. Even the state-owned Global Times reported with approval on the practice in 2010, citing Changsha’s party office as the source of the name after it paid a team of commenters 600 yuan a month in 2004, plus half a yuan – hence “50 cent” – for each glowing post they made.

Since then, paying stooges to praise your work online has become about as routine for local government in China as hiring traffic wardens. A recent study at Harvard University found that the Chinese authorities were placing 448m phony comments on the internet each year. In an analysis of 43,800 pro-regime comments, the researchers concluded that 99.3% of them were made by civil servants from a wide variety of government departments. The postings tended to come in bursts at testing times, such as during protests or party meetings.

Interestingly, few of the comments qualify as trolling, in the strict sense. Rather than attacking unbelievers, they focus on swamping the doubters with a flood of positive messages, or cleverly diverting the conversation. As with any job, some practitioners are laughably bad at it. In January 2014, quartz.com found many stooges simply cutting and pasting a suggested question into an online discussion with a party secretary in Ganzhou. “It seems like taxis are far more orderly than in past years,” they all wanted to tell him.

Two years before, however, Ai Weiwei interviewed an anonymous 26-year-old with very sophisticated methods. The young man, whose own family knew nothing of his work, estimated that 10-20% of the comments he saw were left by the 50 Cent Party. He described creating several identities in one forum, and structuring arguments between them so that the most authoritative voice could ultimately settle matters in the government’s favour. Another tactic was to be deliberately provocative, and thus draw public anger on to himself and away from the authorities. “Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I like it or hate it. It’s just a bit more to do each day. A bit more pocket money each month, that’s all.”

Estimated troops Between 300,000 and 2m people, many part-time.

Favourite subjects Excellent local facilities, why democracy doesn’t work, Taiwan.

Russia
Long before Donald Trump met Twitter, Russia was famous for its troll factories – outside Russia, anyway. Allegations of covert propagandists invading chatrooms go back as far as 2003, and in 2012 the Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi was revealed to be paying people to comment on blogs. However most of what we know now comes from a series of leaks in 2013 and 2014, most concerning a St Petersburg company called Internet Research Agency, then just “Internet Research”. It is believed to be one of several firms where trolls are trained and paid to smear Putin’s opponents both at home and internationally.

According to internal documents released by a group of hackers in 2013, Internet Research Agency employed more than 600 people across Russia, and had an implied annual budget of $10m – half of which was paid out in cash. Employees were expected to post on news articles 50 times a day. Those who wrote blogs had to maintain six Facebook accounts and publish at least three posts daily. On Twitter, they had to have at least 10 accounts, on which they would tweet 50 times. All had targets for the number of followers and the level of engagement they had to reach.

Later, an investigator called Lyudmila Savchuk went undercover at the company and afterwards published her experiences. These included smearing the character of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in the days following his murder, and promoting the theory that he was killed by his own friends, rather than by friends of Putin. “I felt the bullets between my own shoulders,” Savchuk said. “I was so upset that I almost gave myself away. But I was 007. I fulfilled my task.” When a Finnish reporter called Jessikka Aro wrote about Internet Research in 2014, she herself became the target of a frightening campaign of threats and smears.

As you might expect, many Russian trolls lack a certain polish when posting in English. “I think the whole world is realizing what will be with Ukraine, and only US keep on fuck around because of their great plans are doomed to failure,” one Internet Research employee wrote on a forum. Indeed the Guardian’s own moderators have begun to notice regular clues, especially on articles about Ukraine. “We can look at the suspicious tone of certain users, combined with the date they signed up, the time they post and the subjects they post on,” says one senior moderator. “Zealous pro-separatist comments in broken English claiming to be from western counties are very common.”

Estimated troops Several thousand.

Favourite subjects Putin and Trump being great, the opposition being corrupt, the Nato conspiracy against Russia, the effeminacy of Barack Obama.

Israel
There’s been an Israeli public relations war for about as long as there’s been an Israel. In Hebrew it’s called “hasbara”, literally meaning “explanation”, and it involves trying to improve the world’s opinion of the country and its causes. Accordingly there are around 350 official Israeli online channels, covering the full range of social media. For instance, besides its well-known Twitter accounts in English, Hebrew and Arabic, the Israeli Defence Force even has its own Pinterest page, featuring photo collections with themes such as “Soldiers’ Stories” and “IDF Style”.

In 2013, the Israeli government revealed that it would also recruit “covert units” however. These would be staffed by a mixture of international supporters and domestic students, whose high intelligence, low income and familiarity with social media make them generally well suited to professional trolling. “We need a unified effort to explain why we have a legal right to be here in Israel,” the Knesset member Dov Lipman told the Jerusalem Post. “That is key to defeat the movements pushing to boycott, divest and sanction Israel.” Those who signed up would get quick access to government information, and leaders of student groups would also be awarded scholarships.

Sure enough, during the war in Gaza the following summer, a student group called Israel Under Fire emerged as one of many voices promoting the Israeli side of the story. “We counter Palestinian propaganda and explain the Israeli perspective,” the group’s leader, Yarden Ben-Yosef, said. “Social media is another place where the war goes on. This is another way to tell our story.” We do not know whether Israel Under Fire was itself one of these covert units, or whether Ben-Yosef got a scholarship. The group’s Facebook Page is still active today.

Estimated troops Low thousands.

Favourite subjects Palestinian brainwashing, friendliness of Israeli troops, justifiedness of Israeli force.