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Putin’s trolls

Throughout the Cold War, Russia and the US and their allies engaged in a vast number of covert operations aimed at the “hearts and minds” of the other side’s citizenry, or at the “nonaligned” world.

Many of these operations involved “plants” of false (or true but damaging) information, via compliant newspaper editors and reporters. I have no inside knowledge of such operations—that they existed is no secret—but I do recall reading, in the years before the Wall came down, some very suspect copy, in papers such as the Daily Telegraph, about this or that crime or malign plot of the Soviets—stories so exclusively sourced that they never managed to spread to any other newspaper of note.

About the Soviet Bloc’s story plants it was less easy to tell, since virtually everything written by Russia and its slave-states was propaganda to begin with, and—lest we forget—the Western media even in those years had a pronounced leftist bias that opened them up to all manner of malarkey. Every so often, though, I would read something that had originated in (let us say) a moderately well circulated daily in India, to the effect that (let us suppose) America deviously had plotted against or otherwise insulted the good people of the Subcontinent … and I would chuckle as I imagined some white-suited KGB apparatchik from the Sov embassy, some Peter Lorre character, sweatily handing over the explosive copy to his slimy agent-reporter (a dissolute Sydney Greenstreet, with expensive bad habits), as they huddled over a chai in some fly-infested Bombay hole-in-the-wall.

How times have changed! Most folks now get their news from the Internet, which has low, low barriers to editorial entry (as sites like this one demonstrate), making it easier than ever for a clever operator to get some hearts-n-mind-share.

Businesses that sell products and services online now routinely set up fake blogs to hawk their wares, and the crappier the wares, the more blogs they have to set up—all gamed to stay high in the search engine rankings—in order to crowd out the independent (and negative) reviews that customers would otherwise see.

Businesses and their marketers now also routinely pay low-income people—or write apps—to plant fake comments at the ends of articles on high-circulation sites. Anyone who has ever set up or managed a website knows about the link-spewing zombie army that stands ready to assault any unprotected blog post with a stream of SEO-relevant pseudo-verbiage:

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The fact that open systems like the Web are inevitably beset and subverted by these destructive swarms is a story in itself (maybe for a future post). But what I want to point out here is that some countries—and funnily enough, the same dodgy states that incubate e-vermin such as I have quoted above—seem to have adopted a very similar tactic for influencing public opinion and furthering their foreign policies.

Don’t believe me? Check out any article in any Western online newspaper that deals even tangentially with Russia. See how many of the comments are pro-Russian or anyway anti- anyone who is criticizing Russia. A few will be from people giving Russian names and addresses; most won’t.

Just now it may not always be easy to see this, since Russia has shoved its way so prominently into the news; with the ongoing war of words one half-expects to see immigrant Russians and Ukrainians chiming in. But I first noticed this nearly a year ago, while reading something (a story that was only moderately relevant to Russia) in, ironically, the Daily Telegraph: I saw that not just some but most of the comments conveyed pro-Russian, pro-Putin, anti-American sentiments.

Most of those comments were worded to seem genuine and thoughtful, but there was the occasional Big Lie, and anyway even without the latter the net effect was jarring, since pro-Russian sentiments are—I think it is fair to say—not very common among the actual readership of the conservative Telegraph.

Apparently the Putin regime in the past has used a “troll army” of paid geeks, including freelancers, to work the Russian media. As far as I know, no one has noted that this army’s reach now apparently extends to Western media sites—even though it must be obvious by now to the comment moderators of the more influential ones like the New York Times and Washington Post. I suppose their IT departments haven’t yet figured out how to distinguish reliably between the fakes and the genuines. But to stay completely silent about the fact that their comments sections are riddled with Russian propagandists seems like cowardice—maybe they’re afraid to pick a fight and lose their Moscow bureaus, and their precious “access.”

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