The explosion of digital channels has opened the door to global information for common people—changing the way we interact with the world around us. But it has also turned into a digital battleground where anonymous troll armies fight, tooth and nail, to manipulate opinions, propagate outright lies, tarnish the images of rivals and harass those who oppose certain viewpoints. But who are these agents of information warfare? How do you identify internet troll behaviour? How do they operate and what are their motives? Once rooted in ideals of free speech, the phenomenon of trolling today is changing the DNA of the internet.
Like a regularly trained military, "the troll army" is accomplished in the art of information warfare; they attack fast without missing a second and carry out their mission with surgical precision. Combating organised trolling when you don’t know your enemy is not only difficult but almost impossible. The modus operandi of the troll army is simple: a group of people with fake identities join a social forum and continually attack and/or propagate a particular viewpoint, spreading misinformation and propaganda. The whole mission is carried out in an orchestrated manner. They use retweets and comments on posts to further their narrative often with the aid of bots, programmed to spread certain messages. Troll armies pose a great danger to the very idea of free speech and their interference can impact the socio-political fabric of a country or society. It becomes all the more troubling when their primary aim is to shape the policies that affect the way a country is run and they do this by targeting the electorate before they cast their vote.
There is another form of trolling that sounds less disturbing, where American corporations run a letter-writing campaign for supporting a lobbying initiative and give a false impression that the viewpoints are coming directly from the grassroots. Though it does not sound that egregious, the very idea nevertheless remains the same—subverting a legitimate and honest opinion. The troll factories are perilous because they sow the seeds of mistrust, foster polarisation and foment troubles to serve a particular motive.
How the scenario is in different countries
Tinkering with people’s opinions has been a proven tool for different governments. Nowadays, influencing people’s opinion is a part of the poll strategy of every major political party in almost all major and minor countries. Foreign governments are also known to interfere in the internal politics of other countries in order to form a favourable government. So, Donald Trump’s most ardent followers are not from America, but allegedly from Russia, if various newspaper reports are to be believed. Nowadays, western countries are extremely wary of the Russian troll army's invasion.
It’s widely believed that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte takes the assistance of this digital army to suppress opponents’ voices, if newspaper reports are to be believed again. To know the negative consequences of the troll army fully, Philippines can be a classic case study. Common people routinely receive death threats from this "keyboard army". A few activists who have tried to raise their voice have instead been killed.
Troll armies are useful for governments for a variety of reasons. Countries like Israel, France, the UK, India, Colombia, Singapore and China use them to promote diverse agendas. For example, Israel may use them to build a positive opinion in the middle-east countries, whereas Turkey may find them as a useful weapon to disrupt the political process in Iraq and undermine the hostile mainstream media.
The reason behind President Erdogan’s backing of the troll army in Turkey was that his ruling had no support from the mainstream media, which forced him to think about different ways to influence the public opinion. The Ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) aggressively raised its own social army that came in handy during the Gezi Park protests in 2013. It almost turned the whole media environment upside down. It created a false impression that the mainstream media has sold its morality and can no longer be trusted. Social media has become a pivotal part of the information ecosystem and the unregulated nature of these platforms has allowed troll armies to feed users with all sorts of false information.
According to a research study titled "Digital Populism: Trolls and Political Polarization of Twitter in Turkey" by Ergin Bulut in the Koc University: "Trolling has impacted the language of politics itself. As citizens, we increasingly find ourselves asking whether we are being trolled by our leaders, who, for instance, suggest that Muslims first discovered America. Politicians endorse trolls’ discriminatory language on Twitter to appeal to the masses."
The internet is now an important tool in asymmetric warfare, which costs a lot less compared to its traditional counterpart. Such tactics have been used for more than a decade, but people mostly ignored them, considering them a benign tool in the hands of soft powers. Only recently have we seen the effects that internet troll armies can have on public opinion, and although their clandestine nature makes it difficult to measure the ramifications, knowledge of these operations can help us better discern the information we come across and inform better opinions and choices.