I was thinking, a few days ago, that I might do a post on the bellyaching and caterwauling from the Russophobes about Moscow’s supposed army of “paid trolls”, who are reimbursed by the Russian government for clogging western comment threads with fallacious arguments and childish insults which detract from – or derail entirely – thoughtful and informative commentary, often ridiculing the post itself into the bargain. As I made my daily round of certain publications, including Russia Insider, I saw that I had been trumped in that intention by the inimitable Patrick Armstrong with “The West Throws a Temper Tantrum“. There is no besting Patrick, with his enviable background in Russian affairs, his diplomatic experience and his pungent vocabulary – and even if there were, he references a story by Mark Ames of The eXile fame, who has traced the provenance of the “Russian Trolls” theme and found it to be a recurring wet dream of the Russophobes as far back as 2013.
The Incredible Human Smarm Generator, Max Seddon, England’s answer to beefcake magazines (I’m assuming here that he is from England because such an insufferable twit really could not have come from anywhere else, but please correct me if I am wrong and I will have the guilty location pulled down and sown with salt and dragon’s teeth) did it back in 2014, basing his breathless report on “Plans attached to emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker collective”, although the location is the same one as that described in more recent scoops – the Internet Research Center on 55 Savushkina St., St Petersburg. According to Ames’ story, Seddon’s source and the furthest back we can easily trace the story is – surprise – Novaya Gazeta, The Little Newspaper That Could; employer of the martyred Anna Politkovskaya, circulation about 184,000 copies (many, like The Moscow Times, giveaways in hotels and train stations). Partly owned by Russian oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and former jilted President Mikhail Gorbachev, Novaya Gazeta now distinguishes itself by publishing the hoarse grunting and screaming of Yulia Latynina, who wrote that poor people should not be allowed to vote because they are hungry and will vote for any prospective leader who promises them food, and who caught on before anyone else that the Chel’yabinsk meteorite was a secret government missile test that got away from them. She retracted that story shortly after it was released, but was unrepentant – she was wrong this time, but make no mistake, that did not mean the Kremlin was not up to devilish experiments. Oh, all right; one more. She announced in 2012 that Putin would use distractions in the Middle East to “stage his long-awaited attack on Georgia”. There were clear signs of the contingency planning for this, she confided, in another advertisement for the wisdom of wearing a helmet when playing contact sports.
Anyway, now that I have hopefully established for you the provenance – to say nothing of the credibility – of the source of this latest nutty obsession, we don’t want to make this about the source. The droll droolery of this unbridled foolishness has been exposed, and done to death.
And yet. I decided to go ahead with it, because there is an entire fundamental in this story that I did not see covered to my satisfaction.
Neoconservative warhag Annie Applebaum was quite wound up with outrage over the Russian troll issue last winter, penning a crie-de-coeur to a democracy in its death throes because of fake, bought-and-paid-for comments on Internet forums. The very bedrock of democracy is cracking, she tells us, because “…[o]nce upon a time, it seemed as if the Internet would be a place of civilized and open debate; now, unedited forums often deteriorate to insult exchanges. Like it or not, this matters: Multiple experiments have shown that perceptions of an article, its writer or its subject can be profoundly shaped by anonymous online commentary, especially if it is harsh. One group of researchers found that rude comments “not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” A digital analyst at Atlantic Media also discovered that people who read negative comments were more likely to judge that an article was of low quality and, regardless of the content, to doubt the truth of what it stated. “
Oddly enough, she did not speculate on what lying does to the credibility of a story, despite her track record as the kind of from-the-hip liar who lies just to keep in practice even when the truth would serve just as well. Astoundingly, in the very same post, she cites Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev – of the partisan hack journal Interpreter Mag – as competent authorities to “distinguish truth from state-sponsored fiction”.
But never mind that for now. Our old friend Catherine Fitzpatrick – also of Interpreter Mag – comments in a story for The Atlantic, by Daisy Sindelar; “ …trolls inhibit informed debate by using crude dialogue to change “the climate of discussion.”If you show up at The Washington Post or New Republic sites, where there’s an article that’s critical of Russia, and you see that there are 200 comments that sound like they were written by 12-year-olds, then you just don’t bother to comment,” she says. “
However, that emphasizes a point that everyone seems to be missing: comments which are supportive of Russia’s view, but are crudely formatted or in which the commenter appears to struggle with English, especially if they are angry or insulting – are almost never deleted in moderated forums. In fact, such forums appear to deliberately leave them, as punching bags for enthusiastic and righteous rebuttals as well as examples of what unlettered savages and dropout dolts “Kremlin supporters” are, in much the same way a lioness will hamstring a gazelle and leave it for her cubs, so they will learn to kill. Also, such comments rarely inspire the accusation that the commenter is a paid troll – who would pay anyone for such an inept performance?
No, the “paid Putin troll” label is far more commonly awarded to commenters whose native language is English or who are highly competent second-language speakers – and Russians with the language skill of a Leonid Bershidsky or a Vladimir Kara-Murza are rare – and who defend their viewpoint with patient elaboration supported by verifiable references. More often, in moderated forums, such comments (if they contradict the editorial line of the forum) are quickly deleted with a minimum of fuss, before most of the readership can even see them. The Guardian is legendary for deleting anything positive written about Russia in the commentary to its articles, and what remains where it once was is the maddeningly self-righteous message, “This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.”
Allow me to offer an instructive example: through the magic of Disqus, I recovered these comments from the Kyiv Post. Mine was marked as “spam” and deleted. See what you think.
Here’s the original comment, by an academic bright spark who calls himself Mr. RainbowBotox:
“First of all, around 2008, they quietly changed the law allowing them to use nuclear weapons first. Therefore they will be able to use it first. there is also the so-called “strategic use” of these weapons, if things get worse and they decided to drop one on Talin, Estonia, or any other of these countries, there is no way in which the UK, France or the US are going to respond with nuclear weapons, risking the feared wide scale mutual destruction. Therefore it is a real danger that they can actually use them and believe not be at risk of receiving a similar strike.”
Here’s my reply, which stayed up no more than an hour before a moderator removed it as spam.
“Is that so? Actually, no; it’s not. Russia dropped the no-first-use policy in 1993, and there was nothing sneaky about it at all – what’s the sense of changing a policy in private? How does that have any global effect?
Analysts at the time speculated the reasoning behind it was not a Russian eagerness for nuclear war, but a policy change which recognized a new role for the nuclear component – deterrence of limited conventional war. The probable reason for that was the steady erosion of Russia’s conventional forces, and a need to keep NATO off them until they could regroup. Since 2010 Russia has steadily reduced its reliance on the nuclear deterrent and has drawn down the Strategic Rocket Forces significantly, preferring to beef up the seaborne component.
Anybody who seriously thinks they would nuke one of the Baltic states needs a psychiatric examination, or knows nothing of nuclear weapons. They are too close to Russia, and even though the prevailing winds are generally westerly it is not worth the risk. None of the Baltics would be able to stand against a conventional attack at much less risk. But why? Russia is not remotely interested in subjugating the yappy Baltics, despite what Edward Lucas tells you – when was he ever right about anything? Are they rich, or something? Russia spent more preparing for the Olympics than the GDP of the wealthiest of them.”
A little of my reply is opinion, such as where I suggest Russia is not interested in subjugating the Baltics. I don’t see any evidence of it, but the Russian government obviously does not consult me on its plans. But most is factual, and supported by references. Mr. RainbowBotox’s comment was allowed to remain although it contained factual errors and they were pointed out. It’s still there now.
Similar shenanigans go on all the time in The Guardian, and thoughtful comments which appear to be the result of careful research are summarily deleted because they clash with the paper’s editorial stance, and because they show up the original commenter as a fool. Some of these authors are simply filtered out after they have had a couple of comments deleted, so that nothing authored by them will be accepted. Occasionally they inspire grudging admiration for the author’s command of English – several such were directed at our own Moscow Exile, which made me laugh, because he is as English as the crumpet.
This kind of high-handedness, resulting in a complete inability to have one’s opinion heard, are beginning to inspire alternative sites which are not moderated; in The Guardian’s case it is mirrored by the brilliant OffGuardian, and there are many other great ones such as Russia Insider, Danielle Ryan’s Journalitico and Paul Robinson’s Irrusianality. They rarely seem to attract trolls (except for Russia Insider, which does), and on the occasions they show up the comment sections eat them alive.
Just a couple more points before I hand over the floor to you. One, for what it’s worth, the “Kandid Konfession” of alleged Russian blogger and former paid Russian troll Marat Burkhard is alleged by this German site to have been a hoax perpetrated by Jürg Vollmer’s “Troll Factory” in Frankfurt, allegedly the same outfit that perpetrated the “Gay Girl In Damascus” scam. The west was quite angry to discover the supposed 25-year-old lesbian in Syria was actually a 40-year-old straight man in Edinburgh.
Two; the scenario “Burkhard” describes, in which trolls act in teams of three, makes no sense. According to him, one person provides the original comment, the second plays the “villain” and disagrees with him (ostensibly to provide the appearance of balanced opinion), while the third affirms the rightness of the first person’s opinion. He agrees all three sit together, agreeing on who is going to answer who, but then says they do not talk much because everyone is busy.
There’s no need for them to talk at all; allegedly, each operator controls ten Twitter accounts; presumably they each also supplied ten fake email addresses to get the accounts. Why would one operator not fulfill all three roles, playing the parts of initial commenter, villain and collaborator? If it is possible to tell that all three were generated by the same individual, so they must do it in teams of three, why would each need ten Twitter accounts?
Three, the exchange the alleged troll defector describes – initial commenter, villain and collaborator – neatly captures just about every comment-forum disagreement ever written. It is therefore easy to characterize any exchange in which the commenter is hammering the editorial policy of the site as having come from a “professional paid troll”.
We are being set up. While Applebaum plants the suggestion that you should not read comment forums any more because they are dominated by Russian trolls, Fitzpatrick backs her up that you should just read the article and not pay attention to comments. Applebaum chimes in that research has shown that negative comments can affect your opinion of both the article and its author – far better to just read the article and internalize its truths, rather than confuse yourself. Meanwhile comments in which the author struggles with English and is insulting (“Obama is a monkey, Putin good”) are allowed to remain, to serve as an example of how poorly-educated and bigoted Russians are. Anything which argues for fairness and substantiates that Russia is being unfairly criticized, using established and respectable academic or media references, is deleted with some excuse that it is spam, or violates some arbitrary community guidelines.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, comment forums in English-speaking sources were almost overwhelmingly in support of articles extolling the goodness of westerners and their policy and the evil of the barbarian hordes who dwell between the Baltic and the Sea of Okhotsk. This is so no longer, and articles which try to draw Manichean comparisons have to fly through a cloud of flak. The western ideologues don’t like that. Hence, the cloaking device of “Russian trolls”. Anyone arguing against stereotyping of Russia, its leader and its policies, who substantiates his or her argument with solid reasoning and historical or contemporary fact, must be paid by the Russian government. Paid to lie, of course, which is why they must get rid of your argument before it dawns on readers that it is true.
Unless, of course, you use all the same devices as a troll – an assumed name, profane and opinionated commentary, statements which assume facts not in evidence – but support the western agenda. Then, it’s enough that you say you’re not a troll; you “try not to lie (according to your own beliefs, which you do not challenge with research) and nobody’s paying you”. Then, like “Adolfych” in the Sindelar piece, you can troll to your heart’s content and never get anything more negative than “an opinionated mischief-maker”. You’ll benefit from much the same double standard which calls a Moscow billionaire an “oligarch”, and a Kiev billionaire a “tycoon”.
You always know you’re winning when the other side feels like it has to change the rules.