Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How Do I Get Paid To Be An On-Line Troll!?

One of the recurrent conspiracy theories you'll see in online discussions is that certain posters are actually paid trolls--agents of some nefarious force whose day job is actually to come to your forum and post inflammatory things that push all your buttons! Read here for an example!
If someone you don't know makes comments on facebook group pages supporting whaling or sealing, it is most likely an employee of a government. We have for a long time known but could not prove that the postings by various names that appear time and time again are from people paid to post comments in favor of the killing of seals, dolphins, whales and other animals. Now we have proof. This Canadian Press story details how the Canadian government has hired firms to monitor online forums and to post propaganda supporting the slaughter of these animals.
This sounds pretty good, honestly--how do I get this sweet work-from-home job? Is this even real? Who's doing it? Are those posters who make you rage-stroke actually nefarious hired hit-jobs? Who's behind this? And most importantly: how much does it pay?

In China the answer is apparently: 50-cents per post. Here is an interview (quoted in Reason magazine) with one of these paid-trolls.
Once you understand these instructions, you begin to select your subjects [or objectives], finding relevant news or articles on websites and then writing one's own articles, making posts [in the responsesection, and responding to other responses, all along the lines of the general orientation given above. This requires a lot of skill. You must hide your own identity. And you can't write in too official a way. You have to write articles of many different styles. Sometimes this means talking, fighting and disputing with yourself. Essentially, it's about creating a facade and then channeling web users over to you. The art of doing this is actually quite profound.
Okay--but that's China. Could it happen here? The answer is: it kinda did.
A group of influential conservative members of the behemoth social media site have just been caught red-handed in a widespread campaign of censorship, having multiple accounts, upvote padding, and deliberately trying to ban progressives. An undercover investigation has exposed this effort, which has been in action for more than one year.
It's difficult for me to tell, for certain, if this is simply alleged or if the evidence really supports it--but there is evidence. Here's the Wikipedia entry for your examination:
The Digg Patriots is an online US conservative activist group which shares news stories and opinion articles on the popular social media website, Digg. The group started as an invitation-only Yahoo! Groupsemail list after Digg removed inter-member Instant Messaging. Using a subscription mailing list service to replace Digg "shouts," members of the group shared links, and requested each other to vote up ("digg") or vote down ("bury") other members' submissions. This generated controversy after the mailing list was made public, with allegations that the group was "gaming the system"..
But Maybe This Doesn't Count!
Assuming the charges are true (and I'll lean towards the idea that they are) the issue here is a group of conservative volunteers who are "gaming" a social media site where their actions prevent certain stories from being seen. In the case of China we are dealing with a regime that is actively trying to control their population and spend billions of dollars a year working against the Internet.

This is very different than someone posting profanity laden messages designed to get you to freak out. It's different than someone trying to get your dander up with a well-aimed post on some message board somewhere. In other words, these two examples have an actual concrete goal that someone might actually either pay good money for (the Chinese government who, probably rightly, see unfettered online conversation as a danger to their regime) or, in the case of Digg, can actually enact a form of ideological censorship.

Would anyone actually get paid for making you upset? Here's someone's theory:
1. Break up the conversation. Maybe they realized that “lefties” like to talk, and discuss points, and then formulate from said discussions. So by interjecting and injecting their “take”, they break up that conversation or disrupt the discussion to the point of making the conversation useless or stop where it’s at. Thereby preventing the progression of ideas to action. “Names will never hurt me”. “Keep em’ talking, while I go steal the loot”? So is it to prevent action?
2. Maybe it’s just to continue the divide and conquer strategy. Ie. paid trolls are the maintenance costs of this strategy. As long as you can pay people to spout these talking points, and thus in most people’s head equate that with the “other side”, you thereby entrench them in their positions, ie. the bunker mentality. Would continue divide and conquer.
3. Keep em’ mad. Angry people, ie. rage stroke, do not think as rationally, IN GENERAL. Stoke their anger with talking points that they know inflames the “other side”. Get them so angry that they actually need to take a time out. It breaks the conversation, it cements divide and conquer, and it renders them as rage-filled lizard-brains. Of course this anger would have the dual benefit of being reawakened, next time with less stimulus, and thereby causing all of the above more efficiently. Use the people’s,left or right, own rage against the people themselves.
Whether you buy any of that (and I'll give you my take on it in a moment--I'm highly dubious) there are certainly claims people are getting paid to disseminate political ideas on certain fora. Here is a confession!
For almost five years, I was a paid Internet troll. Yes, I admit.
But first let me state that I never performed my job here on ATS, though I believe I have occasionally seen a handful on here who were using a script similar to what I was assigned.

I cannot and will not name names, but after an internship at a firm with government and political party (Republican) contracts, I was offered the position of "Online Communications Associate" at another company by someone from the original firm for which I interned. My contract completed one year ago, and I have since moved on.

Utilizing six artificial personas, I was active in social networks and bulletin boards. But since I came to love and respect this site, as I stated, I never performed my functions here. Each week, I and presumably several others, were provided with information to use in our online postings. At first the information was comprised of fully conceived scripts, but as I became more and more experienced, it eventually became simple bullet or talking points.

At first I needed to provide links to my postings, but when the company name changed (never knew the real names of any people there), that requirement stopped.

The pay wasn't very good, but since I was working from my apartment, I suppose it wasn't bad and I was able to do several other writing assignments on the side.
The thread is lengthy--but it does trip my bullshit detector. He claims he was recruited out of college. That he worked through a like website (this is actually reasonably believable--but it doesn't solve the key issue) and that he was given assignments in the form of "scripts."

What makes me think this is untrue is: (a) he doesn't name names or provide any evidence other than his say-so. Things like "a script," web-sites, scans of checks received, and so on would go a long way towards making this look more reasonable. But there's worse: how exactly did the recruitment work?

He says it was offered at the end of "an unpaid internship" which--you know--maybe--but key to having someone put out an extreme political view for money would necessitate that:
  1. They already hold those views (which, although he doesn't say exactly, he probably does not as he describes them as 'far right.')--if not you would be risking "explosion on contact" when you offer him the job and he's repulsed by it.
  2. That the money (he says slightly more than slinging coffee at Starbucks for 40 hours per week) which seems to be about 16k per year (he claims the job was for 6 months--so he made 8k posting to Internet forums) would have to be buying something of value to the company.
  3. At the end of the job you would have to have some way to keep these guys quiet (he cites possible legal troubles--but that seems tenuous to me. He does not claim ideological affiliation for his positions or any love for his former employers). I suspect that if someone really was taking people who just "needed the money" (as opposed to true believers who, clearly, already do this stuff for free) we would see a lot more of these stories and in other places than AboveTopSecret.
However ... There is some reasonably unsettling evidence that something is going on:

This post by Blackmarketeer (in the above thread on page 5--I can't link directly to the post itself) has three examples of posts that do, in fact, seem to be following a similar "script." Here are two of them:

Example 1: A Question For Democrats (Topic started on 5-4-2011 @ 12:35 PM by oxykerfluffle)
Every time someone disagrees with Obama liberals throw out the race card? We have had to deal with this since he started campaigning in the middle of 2008 until now. The only defense we get is "you're a racist" or a redneck, or we get the Bush blame game. No one ever calls them out on this except Fox news, all the other main stream media is on the same team.
Now you have your own war, where are all the liberals to protest it? This is your war OBAMA started it. Helloo??
The country is in deep debt, 14 trillion all OBAMA's fault and this idiot wants to get re-elected, and with a BILLION DOLLAR war chest for his campaign? You can't blame Bush anymore so get over it, you voted for him so you own this mess now.

Example 2: Question for the Democrats (Topic started on 5-4-2011 @ 10:13 AM by thorazineshuffle)
Why is it that just because some one disagrees with Obama, you automatically throw the race card? I have dealt with this S&^T from the middle of 2008 until now. The only things you guys offer as a defense is either "You're just a inbred, backwoods, racist", or we get everything is Bush's fault. That is very weak, and luckily for yourselves, no one in teh main stream media will call you out for it, since they are on your team. Well, chums, this new war, that you guys hate so much, is OBAMA's war, and where are your protesters at now? Cindy Sheehan, where are you???
What about the debt our country is experiencing now? And this idiot actually wants to be re-elected, and he is going to raise a BILLION (1,000,000,000.00) DOLLARS for his campaign. Because he didn't destroy this country enough the first time around. Cant blame Bush for this mess anymore, Obama owns it. Whoever voted for him owns it now. It is time for you guys to accept it.
NOBAMA in 2012!!!!!
Looking at these two posts (started on the same day a few hours apart) it's pretty clear they were written by the same person and convey the same information. Could this be evidence of a script!?

I think the answer, sadly, is not likely--although it's clear the author of both posts is saying the same thing in two different ways it's also clear that whoever chose the usernames was on the same wavelength: Oxycontin and Thorazine? Fluffle and shuffle? If I was paying for super-secret trolls I sure wouldn't pay for that. Talk about outing yourself!

Okay--But How Do You Get The Job If  There Is One?
The fact that I don't see much evidence in the above doesn't mean there isn't some other indications out there. Here are two links that claim to offer pay-to-post employment:

This is a link to a screenshot of an alleged Craig's list post for Writers Needed To Post Right-Wing Comments!

(Click to expand to readability)

And here is a freelancer posting for Facebook Likes (I can more easily assume that's real--there is some potential page-rank value in a lot of likes).

Furthermore there are at least a couple of advertising companies that might--or that people allege might--do this sort of thing as part of their on-line operations (although it seems unlikely they would use outside 'contractors.'). The links are to a company called Netvocates (which seems to be closed or at least shrunk to almost non-existence) and the Rendon Group which is real, is a propaganda powerhouse, and allegedly "sold the Iraq war." It's possible these guys are involved in some false-flag subterfuge of some sort--but are they posting right wing messages to random message boards? I don't think so.

The Big Problem: People Troll For Free
The big problem with the theory that people are paid to troll is that people are perfectly happy to troll for free. It's called "For the Lulz" (you can google it) and basically there's great enjoyment to be had in tuning up true believers on whatever website you find them.

Given the vast array of Internet Trolls out there for free--why would you pay!? For the consistency of message? Consider the information content of the two messages we looked at:

  • Obama plays the race card! Or says it's bush's fault! And the main-stream media backs you lib-tards!
  • Cindy Sheehan!! Obama's WAR! Wharrgarble!
  • We're in debt!! Obama is going to have a billion dollar campaign! He'll destroy America!!
  • NOBAMA!!
How much would you pay for that? For two people to post the same thing to the same board? Who would pay for that message to go out--if you were the message maker would you even reference Cindy Sheehan!?

I could see it if the trolls were linking to studies, posting reasoned arguments, or otherwise putting forth a front that was trying to be convincing (even if it was just to 3rd party observers)--but seriously? Trying to induce high blood pressure? What's the ROI on that?

What Do I Think?
 I think that the whole "paid troll" issue comes when poster-A gets really upset at poster-B and thinks "There's just no way anyone could really believe that!" So the solution is obvious: someone's gettin' paid! Well, unfortunately the truth is that in the great wilderness of the online world you can find someone willing to defend and promote anything.

The idea that there's thousands of dollars worth of value (and remember, there are a bunch of these guys so it's, let's assume 80k per year for a 10-troll army working in 6-month shifts) in manipulating the tiny self-selected group of people who visit the site and read the comments seems ridiculous. Consider this: what is the last time you saw anyone change someone's mind by arguing online? Oh, sure--there may be cases in certain very sensitive political situations--or with specific population groups and volatile online movements (Middle Eastern regimes censor Twitter because it does have a for-real political impact. I'm sure those governments have their own disinformation regimes as well). There are certainly allegations that Israel is doing it.

But in general? In America? If you think that person you're reading is a paid troll? You're kidding yourself.

And on the possibility that I'm wrong? If you're out there Mystery Agency? Hit me up--I could use a second source of income!


  1. Interesting arguments, and probably right... except for the issue that the political world has been fairly seriously rethinking how it spends advertising money.

    And nobody really pretends to know how well any of this advertising works.

    1. I think the problem with outright "paid trolling" is two-fold. The first is that seeing an Obama billboard in a racing game is, hey, kinda-sorta like seeing it driving around. The chance of it making an impact may be minimal but you really don't want Romney (or vice versa) plastered up there through someone's 50-hour game, do you? (if you're the other guy).

      After all, you might reach a swing-voter. On the other hand, actually posting inflammatory troll-stuff on Democratic Underground or The Free Republic isn't going to change -anyone's- mind. At that point, given that funding is tight for both groups, why pay for it?

      What is the Return on Investment in just making people angrier?

      The second problem is that it's a tiny, tiny subset of people who you reach. A lot of people read Hot Air. I get it on my news-feed. How many people do you think read the comments? All of them (sometimes there are hundreds). The answer is -almost no one-. Look at them: there's a comparatively tiny core of posters who all kinda know each other.

      On a mega-site? Probably less than 200 common posters. To pay someone to troll the regulars is throwing money away (and dude says he got like 16k/year--that's not chump change). To put those comments in with the hopes of reaching potentially persuadable lurkers? Man, I wouldn't fund that.

      And, as I said above, people do this for free. They just don't do it very well. I am sure there is the odd staff member who spends their free time poking the other side on some of the regular boards (although given the quality of most "trolls" these guys can't be very high up)--but as a business model? Not happening.

      Now, there are some conspiracy theories around "shutting down bloggers" (being so offensive or so threatening that bloggers stop posting). That could have slightly more credibility since there -is- an online conversation coming FROM the bloggers--but in practice? We don't see it (where we do see it is vitriolic attack on feminist blogs which notably don't shut down in the face of it -- and are certainly not be targeted by paid trolls).

      So, no: I don't think even in the new era any strategist would think they could reach or convince anyone worthwhile. And if they could? It'd already be being done for free anyway.

      Thanks for the comment though! Keep reading :) (and like us on Facebook!)

  2. I'm not so sure it's such a far stretch. I'm a former 'message board harridan", and a current facebook nut, and I remember seeing this article: a few years ago on my favorite board. Which I then shared with several friends who WEREN'T on that board. Who then shared it to their friends. And so forth, and so on.
    The wonderful thing about information dissemination online is that it's distributed in the ways ripples on water disseminate- increasing circles, which spread. The terrible thing about disinformation online is that it spreads via the same principle.
    So, yes. I am not even a little surprised at the thought of a paid troll, because I wouldn't put it past the bastiches who'd put together an abomination like ALEC and/or Citizens United.

    1. It's not so much that I wouldn't put a "paid troll" past anyone, it's that the kinds of trolling that people are talking about have almost no ROI. Going to a Republican message board to stir up trouble with liberal postings (or vice versa) may be fun for the troll but doesn't convince anyone of anything.

      Why would someone pay for that?

      I can't prove paid trolling has "never" happened--but I assure you, as someone who reads the messages on a bunch of different boards I see zero evidence of any trollish workmanship that anyone with actual money would pay for.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Trollcoinbase pays trolls for trolling everyday!

  5. You may think its just a joke but in the late 90`s the DNC was quite open about the need to hire internet posters and there were help wanted ads in major news papers for the jobs. Today they have gone underground. 800 posters across the country with 20000 identities can have a major impact on what readers think.

    1. Do you have any evidence of this? Examples of ads in news-papers? Interviews with anyone who did it? The Omnivore would love to see it.

      There's also a HUGE difference between a blogger producing content (which pays if you do it well, get lucky, etc.) and a commenter going into enemy territory to stir people up. The former HAS an ROI (ask Erza Klein). The latter has never been shown to be worth paying for.

      (Note: Having people defend your brand when your brand is a commercial property may count--FOX News allegedly did this--but it is very, very different than trolling people on Hot Air or Democratic Underground).

      -The Omnivore