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Evaluating Media in the Age of Fake News: Paid Trolls: Playing Both Sides

A guide to figuring out the reliability of news and media content

A tale of two trolls

For some, trolling is profitable business.  Outrage grabs eyeballs, attention, and clicks, and that means profits.  For governments interested in weakening rival countries, trolling is a cheap and easy way to spread discord, propaganda, and violence.  Professional trolls have had serious effects in Ukraine, Myanmar, and the Philippines as well as the United States.  

2020 election news: US intelligence warns that Russia is spreading disinformation, and getting ever sneakier.

Intelligence agencies have warned for months that Russia and other countries were actively trying to disrupt the November election, and social media companies remain a clear target for their meddling. Facebook said it was warned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the Russian effort.

Read the story of a woman whose job was to produce 'fake news,' -- she would get a news story and then re-write it to be much more sensational and outrageous. 

From Rolling Stone:

She wasn’t selling her audience a candidate or a position — she was selling an emotion. Melanie was selling disgust. The Russians know that, in political warfare, disgust is a more powerful tool than anger. Anger drives people to the polls; disgust drives countries apart.

Professional disinformation isn’t spread by the account you disagree with — quite the opposite. Effective disinformation is embedded in an account you agree with.

Linvill, Darren, and Warren, Patrick.  "That uplifting tweet you just shared?  A Russian troll sent it."  Rolling Stone, 25 November 2019.

Twitter profile of an identified professional troll

Twitter account of a confirmed professional troll

From the New York Times:

In May 2016, a Facebook page called Heart of Texas urged its nearly 254,000 followers to rise up against what it considered to be an urgent cultural menace. A mosque in Houston had opened up a new library, and Heart of Texas planned to protest. “Stop Islamization of Texas,” it warned.

Word of the protest spread quickly, but supporters of the mosque were also ready to mobilize. “Bigots are planning to intimidate through weaponized fear this Saturday at noon,” one of them wrote on Reddit. The post linked to a Facebook page for United Muslims of America, a group that said it was planning a counterprotest for the same time and place.

By now you might be able to guess the punch line here. Heart of Texas wasn’t a real group, as Business Insider later reported. United Muslims of America is a real organization, but the Facebook page promoting the counterprotest was not run by the actual group, as The Daily Beast found. Instead, according to documents made public last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee, both the pro- and anti-mosque protests had been planned and promoted by Russian trolls.

Manjoo, Farhad.  " "What reality TV teaches us about Russia’s influence campaign." New York Times, 8 Nov. 2017, p. B1.

Photo of protest and counter-protest




The Russian government has been especially interested in sowing discord in other countries.  It started with disinformation spread by the KGB during the Cold War, but it continues today in the form of divisive 'fake news' and "denial of service attacks on the truth."   This video series from the New York Times details how and why.