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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Tic Toc Tech: Trolls interfering — Election 2020

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In a recent Facebook Live session, attendees posted dozens of biased messages within minutes of the event kickoff. It instantaneously started an argument between a few attendees, which was very disturbing and distracting. The trolls successfully met all of their goals — create disruption, spread rumors, provoke people, divert the conversation and hurt feelings. In checking some of those people’s profiles, these individuals’ profiles were not well maintained, used a fake or stolen identity or created duplicate profiles with the same names. 

Trolls interfered in the 2016 elections, and they are incredibly active in 2020, spreading rumors about COVID-19 and sharing negative political and divisive news for upcoming elections. Russia was a key player in the 2016 election interference, but lately, China and Iran are also interfering with U.S. elections. To put it in perspective, Twitter released more than 10 million tweets circulated by propaganda farms and their associated puppet accounts to Congress in 2018. Twitter announced all the tweets it released came from “3,841 accounts affiliated with the Russian Toll Farm IRA [Internet Research Agency], and 770 other accounts, potentially originating in Iran.” The Twitter dump encompasses 10 million tweets since 2009 — 9 million of them from the IRA, the rest mainly from the suspected Iranian accounts.

What is a troll? It is a verb and a noun. A troll is a person who intentionally tries to instigate conflict, hostility or arguments in an online social community. Platforms targeted by trolls can include the comment sections of social media forums, personal accounts or chat rooms.

Trolls often use inflammatory messages to provoke emotional responses out of people or disrupt otherwise civil discussion. Many divisive hate groups on social media target people to join the group, engage them in conversations, share fake news with them, and encourage them to share it with their friends. It becomes a whirlwind of misinformation. 

What is a troll farm? A troll farm is an organized operation of many users who may work together in a “factory” or from different places across a distributed network to generate online traffic to affect public opinion and spread misinformation and disinformation. Most of the troll farms are based abroad, but they often recruit Americans or post their employees in the U.S. to legitimize their activities. These groups also deploy sophisticated analytics tools to learn the audience’s behaviors, and bots can make posts to instigate the conversation. 

In closely observing the posts or messages, one can notice generic responses, short answers, grammar mistakes, incorrect reference of places or people, multiple hashtags and low-resolution pictures or images with a watermark. However, trolls are becoming more and more sophisticated in their appearances and language to disguise their identity. These phony groups or individuals make multiple posts in a day, ask for your opinions, invite to discussion forums and reshare the posts to several accounts and social media platforms. 

Unfortunately, there is not a simple solution to avoid this menace. Most social media platforms have deployed tools to identify and block such activities, but it is far from perfect. It is important as a consumer of social media to follow simple common-sense rules. Be diligent while interacting with strangers, do not share your opinion in unknown public forums, trust the information from credible sources only, unfriend and block suspicious groups and individuals, and check your privacy settings to restrict who can post on your page and view your account.

Rupal Thanawala is managing director at Trident Systems, a leading business and technology consulting practice, and tech editor for Indianapolis Recorder. Contact her at rupalt@indyrecorder.com.

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