Professional Trolls and Subliminal Information

Since the beginning of surfing the online world in the early 90s, I can remember so called “Trolls”. People who choose to add negative comments, insult others, and who seem to get satisfaction out of stirring up trouble in an online community. It seems to be in the human DNA to feel free to behave like a troll, since it is not anything new. The anonymity of the digital world seems to have amplified such behavior, since there are rarely direct consequences for trolls.

What seems to be new(er)/(ish) are professional information trolls. Trolls, who are organized, who are strategic and who are part of a larger network to seed distrust, to create a world of fake news and disinformation. A world where no one believes in any information coming from anywhere or a world where you only believe information coming from your own filter bubble that confirm your various biases.

That is a problem! A problem that deserves awareness. It deserves skills that need to be developed in order NOT to be manipulated by subliminal information, not to fall into the trap of disinformation and confirmation bias.

Subliminal is defined by

(a stimulus or mental process) below the threshold of sensation or consciousness; perceived by or affecting someone’s mind without their being aware of it.

Oxford Dictionary

Information trolls are taking advantage of us “not being aware” of how the information they are disseminating is manipulating our minds and shaping our opinions.

What are professional trolls?

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

The Uplifting Tweet you just shared? A Russian Troll Just sent it. by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren

In the article above The Uplifting Tweet you just shared? A Russian Troll Just sent it. , Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren talk about the necessity to teach digital citizens (of all ages <— can’t stress that enough).

In a free society, we must accept that bad actors will try to take advantage of our openness. But we need to learn to question our own and others’ biases on social media. We need to teach — to individuals of all ages — that we shouldn’t simply believe or repost anonymous users because they used the same hashtag we did, and neither should we accuse them of being a Russian bot simply because we disagree with their perspective. We need to teach digital civility. It will not only weaken foreign efforts, but it will also help us better engage online with our neighbors, especially the ones we disagree with.

The Uplifting Tweet you just shared? A Russian Troll Just sent it. by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren

The article mentioned in the quote above by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, points out that

Critical thinking is not enough. Students must be taught dynamics of social media.

Students need to learn how trolls and bots stir up online divisions

I am, as always, concerned WHO is teaching the dynamics of social media to our students, if their teachers don’t know anything about these dynamics? And if the educators in charge of curriculum are not aware either, these topics will never enter the classroom beyond isolated pockets.

Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hodgins in their book “Fact vs. Fiction” also connected the issue of trolling (maybe not necessarily professional trolling), with the issue of fake news. What mostly stands out to me is “the fact that the brain tends to assimilate to the most popular or most frequently repeated opinion, regardless of its accuracy, when bombarded with information.” Bottom line seems to be that we can’t trust our own brains and the only antidote seems to be raising the subliminal to the awareness level as we are being bombarded with subliminal information

We feel trolling is related to our larger discussion about fake news in a couple of important ways. First, recent studies have shown that comments can actually influence the perceptions and opinions of otherwise objective readers. In other words, the more trolls leave negative comments about the stories being shared on a website, the more visitors to that site are likely to view the information being shared there as suspect (Daum, 2013). This further supports the fact that the brain tends to assimilate to the most popular or most frequently repeated opinion, regardless of its accuracy, when bombarded with information. Second, the way such credible news sources as NPR and Popular Science are dealing with trolls is interesting, too. Rather than expend resources on trying to monitor or change their behavior, organizations like these have simply eliminated spaces for public comments on their sites, choosing instead to invest in their social media presences (Green, 2017). This is consistent with the sage advice that has been handed down from one generation to the next since the time when the word troll conjured up images of scary monsters living under bridges: Don’t feed them. The number one goal of trolls is to get attention. The more they get, the more they want. It’s a vicious cycle. If we stop feeding them, they are more likely to just go away.

LaGarde, Jennifer, Hudgins, Darren. Fact Vs. Fiction (pp. 60-61). International Society for Technology in Education. Kindle Edition.

Darren and Jennifer also recommend the following video about trolling in general.

As I scroll through my social media feeds, I realize, when I am not careful (although aware), how I am also being manipulated by the subliminal (or sometimes obvious) information that is being thrown at me via headlines, as I am quickly skimming over articles, glancing at recommended video titles, or scanning comments or likes left on a post. I am also aware how my mood changes, not for the better 🙁 , as I am being bombarded with misinformation, disinformation, re-framed, recycled, re-packed and re-purposed media.

I am trying to train my brain to be hyper aware and more careful with

  • my own biases
  • other people’s biases
  • my own filter bubbles
  • subliminal information being strategically or unintentionally disseminated
  • potentially fake accounts seeding distrust and spreading propaganda
  • trolls and their methods

What are you aware of and trying to train your brain to not be fooled by subliminal information?

As an added resource on the subject of trolls and how gamification can be used to demonstrate how the influencing methods of trolls work, check out the Troll Factory

The object of the game is to gain influence by spreading fear and distrust on social media. How many people can you reel in?

Troll Factory shows you first-hand how information operations work on social media. The goal of the game is to illustrate how fake news, emotive content and bot armies are utilized to affect moods, opinions and decision-making.WHO?

Troll Factory