Paid trolls - A Corporate Attempt To Kill Healthy Public Dialogue And Give Way To A New Wave Of Disguised Hate Speech

We are living in peculiar times labeled as “the post-truth” era, where emotions win over the facts, and private parties are funding powerful media houses and trolls to deliberately spread misinformation. It seems that today we have two opposite sets of “scientifically proven data”; one backed by science, and the other by dubious research funded by well-known names. In the vast online space, everyone seems to be the expert armed with facts and the power of persuasion, demonstrating that power in the comment sections of blogs, and social media posts. In this climate, hiring a group of internet trolls to instigate suspicion and mistrust in real science has never been easier.

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The online space is closer to a carefully molded illusion of freedom of speech than to the truthful representation of the world we live in, and most people still aren’t aware of that. That lack of awareness makes it easier for governments and private companies to promulgate their interests by creating an army of anonymous trolls who carefully place false research results in favor of private parties in places where they can be seen by the public. What looks like an open discussion supported by scientific facts might actually just be a manipulation of facts that relies on our lack of time for checking if everything we read is true.

-       Trolls are not what they appear

As with every phenomenon of the digital era, it is difficult to find a single comprehensive definition of trolling, but all of them agree on this: it is an act of responding to information (news, other people’s comments, etc.) with cynical or satirical remarks, often purposely in order to draw attention or start an argument. Until recently, it was thought that people engage in it only for their own amusement. However, trolling has turned into a business industry, with the rise of documents being uncovered showing that companies hire trolls to disseminate fake news, dilute the legitimate arguments the public holds against companies with fabricated research, and to discredit science. These companies don’t want to lose customers if the new scientific data was to show their industries are harmful to the world in any way. To prevent that, they hire ghostwriters to fabricate research that backs up their businesses, and hordes of online trolls to make this research known to the public. Multinational agricultural giant Monsanto has already been exposed for its acts of hiring online trolls to cite fabricated information and perpetuate the myth that their products are safe for both the people and the environment.

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Paid trolling, however, doesn’t only exist because of corporate economic interests. It also has to do with political power. The U.S. government has a whole program dedicated to maintaining a good image of the United States in the foreign media, which relies heavily on pro-American comments posted by fake online personas, known as “sock puppets”. Propaganda has been and still is, one of the greatest allies of people in power. In the early 1950s “Project Mockingbird” was the name used for an alleged CIA operation to use the manipulation of newspapers in order to control public opinion and maintain the status quo. Today, intelligence agencies turn to the world of social media.

-       Is the news informing you or only making you angry?

The first problem we encounter in the journey of demystifying trolling is the scarcity of people who are willing to scratch the surface of an issue on the public agenda and see what lies beneath. Journalists are often not skillful nor eager enough to investigate the legitimacy of the research someone is quoting. At the same time, the public usually lacks basic media literacy needed for recognizing that there are economic or political interests behind what appears as a layperson’s naïve comment on a piece of news.

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By spurring emotions, trolls are shifting the focus of the discussion from facts to feelings, often using the “us, the good guys vs them, the bad guys” scenarios, thereby making the science backed information seem intrusive or malicious. The borders between hate speech and free speech have never been blurrier, both in the online space and the real world. On the Internet, people are paid to publish lies. On the streets, they are paid to protest.

There has been a growing concern that some of the protests that have occurred in the U.S. don’t actually reflect the needs of the civil society, but rather an attempt of a "soft coup“, launched against Trump by his political rivals. Liberal moguls like George Soros are known for donating millions to organizations that are rallying against policies on the right side of the political spectrum. At the same time, we see a growing number of companies allowing their workers a paid leave if they want to protest for a certain cause. The problem here is that policies like these allow for the employers to manipulate their employees by choosing when to allow them absence. It is also possible for fake protesters who don’t believe in the given cause to pretend to be activists, just so they could have an additional day off, or even earn some money on the side. Concurrently, the actual activists and the oppressed, who see protests as the only way to express their concerns, don’t feel that events unfolding in the streets are aiding the political discussion in any way.

-       Counteracting misinformation and propaganda

Taking into consideration everything mentioned above, it is clear that we need to consult alternative sources of information. They are often difficult to spot due to the sheer fact that their fight for truthful reporting jeopardizes economic interests of business elites. Luckily, they aren’t chimerical. Websites like Snopes have strong work ethics that rely on fact-checking and myth-busting, all helping us discard one attempt of trolling at the time. Those responsible media are the only places where we can read about “whistleblowers”, people who report illegal or unethical doings of their superiors, therewith possibly putting their own safety in danger. Whistleblowing platforms like Wikileaks serve as safe havens for these people, and a strong ally to all those who won’t simply take what they’re being served without questioning the agenda behind it.

Overall, in order to weaken the institution of paid trolls, we need to see a substantial rise of responsibility and engagement on the individual level. Responsibility for what we read. Responsibility for the comments we leave, posts we share and stories we write. Getting a good idea of what is going on in the world from the media depends on the amount of time we are willing to dedicate to checking the facts. Your interest for a certain issue can’t end after a single click on the title of a given article. The road to true information is paved with a good selection of news sources and patience, all taken with a pinch of salt.