Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Dawn of Weaponized Trolling



Obama Is Trolling Republicans

John Dickerson of Slate writes:

Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama's journey in office.

But this twist is a new, higher order of deception: creating the controversy for the purposes of milking it. 

And TownHall responds:

Someone in the lefty press is catching on. … Dickerson uses the topic of the "wage gap" as one example; I would use the topic of voting rights as another. In other words, the president and his administration are giving the press and the people purportedly factual information that they actually know is untrue as part of a deliberate strategy.

The US State Department Is Trolling Jihadis

CNN tells us that the US State Department has joined the war on the Twitter front:

But it is only since their English-language Twitter feed was launched in December, becoming a pugnacious new voice in the conversation, that their efforts have increasingly drawn attention -- and raised eyebrows -- in the West.

This development has led to the spectacle of the U.S. government publicly bickering with jihadists and their ideological fellow travelers on social media, debating Syria, the War on Terror, "the clash of civilizations" in 140-character bursts.

Weaponized Trolling

Taking the above at face value (and it’s hard not to) what we are seeing is an innovation in political dialog that could be called ‘weaponized trolling.’ The Age of the Internet brings us face-to-face with the dark side of the human psyche: it’s all in the comments section of YouTube!

There are a lot of different takes on exactly what trolling is or isn’t—The Omnivore is going to use Wikipedia as the golden definition of what an Internet Troll is:

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtrl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people,[1] by posting inflammatory,[2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

This is important: Trolling—for purposes of this discussion (and should be in everyday parlance)—is a deliberate attempt to provoke an emotional response and / or be disruptive. It’s an attempt to get you mad. This is distinct from:

  • Trying to promote or defend a product, politician, or position
  • Trying to manipulate markets or sow disinformation for personal gain
  • Manipulation of link-rankings to suppress or promote stories
  • Arguing for your ideology in an offensive manner—but not coming to the discussion with the primary purpose being to get people riled up

In the above sense, what Obama and the State Department are doing isn’t actually trolling. They are not responding to Jihadis just to try to get them angry—they are trying to score meaningful points for observers and not let Jihadi claims stand unopposed in the conversation.

But that’s okay (we’ll have an aside at the end about paid trolling)—the key to weaponized trolling is that while the goals are different from basic Internet Trolling, the techniques are similar!

What Is Weaponized Trolling?

Weaponized trolling is the use of online techniques of trolling and disruption with the goal of moving the needle—making real-world impacts. In each case what’s actually going on is the brutal battle to frame the conversation in a way that is beneficial to one’s argument. Framing is the set of concepts and perspectives that govern how people perceive and discuss things. If you can win the framing-war then you have a HUGE advantage in the actual debate. Let’s have some examples:

  1. Equal Work For Equal Pay: Women are paid less than men according to government data—but the reasons for that are often not that the woman is being paid less for the same job as a man as that they work lower paying jobs, fewer hours, etc. It may be that if a man were to work the same schedule he would be paid less at the same scale. Perhaps not (sexism and discrimination are still real things)—but using the 77-cent number is simply putting out a flimsy top-line eye-catcher and then trying to build a position around it that is toxic to Obama’s detractors: Unless they can explain their position very succinctly and carefully, it looks like they are promoting sexist payment-scales for women. They rightly resent this.
  2. Voting Rights: The Republican position is that (a) fake voting is hard to catch and (b) hey, it’s happened at least a few times—so (c) we ought to require Id. Their position is designed to make it look like Democrats are attempting to legalize undocumented immigrant voting—or enable people voting multiple times. Of course when you look at where these initiatives are deeply in force and who will be impacted we can see that while they may stop un-caught hypothetical illegal voters they will definitely stop significant amounts of minority likely-Democratic voters. Depending on which playing-field you have the debate on either the Democrats are corrupt or the Republicans are racist!
  3. The article on the State Department notes that they are using the ‘same emotional arsenal as an Internet troll’—pointed comedy … and anger. As they say (and to be fair) no one from the State Department is going to be saying nice or even measured things about Al Qaeda—but the point here is to use 140-character (i.e. pithy) responses to try to get in the head-space of 3rd parties reading the exchange. If AQ blames America for everything, America can reverse some of that and lay some responsibility for the current state of affairs back on their doorstep. If anyone starts questioning the Blame-America party-line their work is done.

Why Is This Happening Now?

Dickerson says that if your attack ad isn’t getting four Pinocchio's you aren’t doing your job—he’s kind of right. The problem is that Weaponized Trolling isn’t the disease—it’s the symptom. If, indeed, the White House is creating controversy in order to milk it or deliberately framing things in a way that is deceptive—but ‘effective’—the motivations behind it are not simply that Obama (or the State Department) are liars or want their enemies blood-pressure to go up. No, the problem is that the environment has driven the discourse in the direction of emotionally combative trolling.


Well, the first reason is that the conversation has gotten fast and personal. The 24-hr (or less) news cycle and direct contact via Twitter has made even august entities like the White House and State Department far more intimate than in the past (and, remember, Twitter’s usage curve is a hockey-stick—it’s only ‘really’ existed in its current form for about 4-6 years). Even more traditional messaging, like a press-release, is subject to the vectors of viral media (and the need for permanent campaign fund-raising). If your statement of intent gets passed around on Facebook, that’s great.

In order to get your statement of intent passed around on Facebook it has to look an awful lot like trolling—the laws of viral media are pretty clear: people don’t share boring things.

The other problem is that the audience for communication is more polarized than ever. It’s telling that the same modes of communication apply to American political observers and Islamic Jihadis alike. We’re so polarized (meaning that Democrats and Republicans vote as almost perfect blocs) that we don’t even agree on reality anymore. The CBO numbers, whatever they are, are only  valid as they support your side. Otherwise they’re skewed. Same for polls. Same for … weather reports. Same for science. When the other side—both sides, really—is a wall of NO, what’s your incentive to play it safe?

Kerry tried being the “grown up in the room” and it didn’t get him anywhere. A lot of people thought McCain was too cautious about going after Obama (and Romney was WAY too much of a gentleman) and paid the ultimate price for it. We want our statesmen to be statesmen—and their mouth-pieces to be … well …


What Do You Do About It?

Since weaponized trolling is the symptom, the cure has to lie at the root cause. With external actors (especially AQ) there’s little that can be done other than the current ‘diplomatic’ options (Drones). At home we’d like to think there are less severe options (although … Rand Paul is also worried about drones … Hmmm). For starters, we have to see if Obama leaving office in a couple of years helps things. While The Omnivore didn’t find Obama’s behavior (early on—but even now) especially divisive, forcing us to have the racial conversation might de facto be part of the problem.

On the other hand, Clinton Derangement Syndrome was followed by Bush Derangement Syndrome so we might just be in the age of viciously hating our elected leaders if we didn’t personally elect them. Weaponized trolling is a problem in that it erodes credibility across the partisan divide—if you believe (and you better) that your elected leaders are going to stretch the truth to or past the breaking point to get their message out, why believe anything they’re saying at all?

A recent Fox News poll finds that a lot of people think Obama lies—at least sometimes.

Well, you know, Fox News polls … probably skewed.

The solution isn’t gate-keepers either: once a fact-check disagrees with your ideology they’re part of the conspiracy. Who fact-checks the fact-checkers, anyway? (And can we get Alan Moore to write something about that?)

So what do you do? Well, it turns out: the answer is pretty clear—you do what you do with any trolling. You tune it out. We see manipulative click-bait all the time from pros like Upworthy and Gawker. We have the choice not-to-click. Use it. If you care about women’s advancement in the workplace? Fine—but assume any numbers are picked for their convenience rather than their reality. It might not always be lying—but you’ll do better assuming it is. Need proof of illegals voting? No you don’t—you can be Faith Based about anything. You were going to be anyway—admit it.

We are using Darwinian forces to breed a new form of political discourse—we can also use those evolutionary pressures to create a new form of consumer. You’ll just do what you’ve historically done and trust your confirmation bias.

The marketplace of ideas on the Internet has always been a more or less free market, and now it seems freer than ever. Caveat Emptor, y’all.

Aside: Paid Trolling. The Omnivore does not believe people are getting paid to do disruptive emotional rage-stroke trolling on your favorite Internet site (assuming your favorite Internet site is a partisan political blog in the US). Why not? Because there’s no Return On Investment in posting things that get you upset. You’re not that important and only true-believers read the comments anyway. Someone may well be defending Fox News, promoting Whole Foods, or pimping for their politician—but that’s different. That has a (weak) Return on Investment.

It’s possible some staffer, technically on the clock, is trolling somewhere—but as a mission statement? As their actual paid job? The Omnivore doesn’t think so. Firstly, people troll for free—there’s no need to pay someone to go to a conservative site and stir things up with liberal posting—people will do that anyway. Secondly, the ‘quality’ of trolling is pretty bargain basement: if a campaign were gonna pay for idea injection they’d want to actually inject real ideas. They’d also want some way to measure performance.

No campaign has so much money to waste on something with no provable response, a super-limited, super-hostile audience, and activities that would be politically damaging if they came out.

And thirdly? Thirdly—and this is the thing—if you think someone’s paying to troll you and you’re on a deeply partisan message board? Consider this: Every DIME they are theoretically spending against you would be better spent if they took real comments from you and your allies and simply publicized them. That’s right: rather than spending one electron making you upset by coming in with weak-ass (and, be honest with yourself: the arguments are ALWAYS weak-ass, aren’t they? I mean, you’re so right—and so smart—and darn it, so good looking—that NO ONE every comes in with a killer cracker-jack argument that turns you around, do they?) argument in your face they’d do better to take your own words and show them to the world.

What does The Omnivore mean!? Click those links.

Sorry. No one’s being paid to troll you—you’re just the kind of person who gets trolled.


  1. "I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is."

    - Zoolander

    -- Ω

    1. If you find out, let me know!
      -The Omnivore