A new report from the Institute For the Future on “state-sponsored trolling” documents the rise and rise of government-backed troll armies who terrorize journalists and opposition figures with seemingly endless waves of individuals who bombard their targets with vile vitriol, from racial slurs to rape threats.
The report traces the origin of the phenomenon to a series of high-profile social media opposition bids that challenged the world’s most restrictive regimes, from Gezi Park in Turkey to the Arab Spring.
After the initial rebellions were put down, authoritarians studied and adapted the tactics that made them so effective, taking a leaf out of US intelligence agencies’ playbook by buying or developing tools that would allow paid trolls to impersonate enormous crowds of cheering, loyal cyber-warriors.
After being blindsided by social media, the authoritarians found it easy to master it: think of Cambodia, where a bid to challenge the might of the ruling party begat a Facebook-first strategy to suppress dissent, in which government authorities arrest and torture anyone who challenges them using their real name, and then gets Facebook to disconnect anyone who uses a pseudonym to avoid retaliation.
The rise of authoritarian troll armies has been documented before. Google’s Jigsaw division produced a detailed report on the phenomenon, but decided not to publish it. Bloomberg, who have produced the excellent investigative A Global Guide to State-Sponsored Trolling supplement to the IFTF report that draws on a leaked copy of the Google research, implies that something nefarious happened to convince Google to suppress its research.