Hacking the Election

The tactics of ‘troll armies’ used around the world could sway the American election.

By Alexander H. Maurice.

The results of a new online poll show that a hated politician is actually quite popular. Journalists criticizing him suddenly see the comments section of their articles flooded by arguments. Trending hashtags emerge that show support for the politician is supposedly growing online. What’s going on here? Has public opinion completely switched? Or perhaps the social forum of the Internet is being hijacked by paid agents controlling hundreds of fake accounts.

Free speech and freedom of assembly are sacrosanct in democratic nations to prevent manipulation of the public by propaganda. When everyone who opposes or supports a certain cause can stand up and be seen in an assembly, the will of the people becomes known not just to the government but to all other citizens. Social media was touted by activists in the Arab Spring and other movements as a new form of assembly hall, where the masses can speak up not only to be heard but to be counted by their allies.

In online forums, however, not every persona represents a person. How can you tell if the thousands shouting on Twitter for political change represent thousands of real opinions or are actually the fake accounts of a small handful of people?

In online parlance, someone who manipulates or misleads, often under a fake identity, is known as a “troll”. Usually the term is associated with cruel loners engaging in social sadism, but a new form of paid troll has emerged. Around the world, political factions are enlisting troll armies, hundreds of people controlling hundreds of thousands of social media accounts, for one purpose: to manipulate the public by spreading propaganda, apparently from below.

In the last decade, there has been a massive growth of troublesome troll armies around the world. The strategy first gained notoriety with Beijing’s Internet Water Army, which controls social media in China, and with the social media arm of Russian state propaganda, the Trolls from Olgino. Troll armies, however, are not just the tools of despotic governments; they have also been used by politicians to manipulate elections and, frighteningly, have even been enlisted to fight in the United States election.

Propaganda from Below

A traditional army is a force organized for fighting on land. The increasing importance of the Internet has seen the rise of armies that fight online. As a force of paid online commenters, troll armies deal more with propaganda than with computer hacking, but they nonetheless use sophisticated software and identity-shielding networks to control multiple fake personas on social media. Their job is to …

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