The Russian government has launched a battle for public opinion following its involvement in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine this year. Trolling has emerged as a two-pronged tactic in the government’s information management strategy – it enables the regime to silence unfavorable opinions while sowing seeds of pro-Russian sentiment.
The word “troll” evokes a much different image today than in centuries past, when trolls were viewed as mythical, cave-dwelling creatures rather than disruptive Internet users.
In a recent Radio Svadba segment, discussants went so far as to call trolling an instrument of information warfare.
Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst, echoed this sentiment when he told BuzzFeed, “Armies of bots were ready to participate in media wars.” These “armies” are massive and funded by the Kremlin. According to the BuzzFeed piece, a budget for one trolling agency, the Internet Research Agency, which employs over 600 people, is set to be over $10 million in 2014.
Trolls are paid to post hundreds of comments and maintain multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts, which they use to flood the Internet with comments. Oftentimes, the posts are unintelligible. The Washington Post quoted a comment ostensibly left by one bot: “Halloo, egghead! Let’s go! “Oink-oink-oink-oink-oink …” hahaha-haha-ha…..)))))))))))” It is easy to dismiss these and other posts written in poor English, as insignificant. How could such inane comments possibly influence public dialogue about international politics anyway?
These posts are not always intended to persuade, however. Rather, trolling can be most powerful when it succeeds in shutting down discussions entirely. In some cases, readers choose not to comment on articles out of fear of inflammatory responses. Opposition activist Vladimir Volokohnsky told the St. Petersburg Times last year that while “the effect created by such Internet trolls is not very big,” the problem is that “[trolls] manage to make certain forums meaningless because people stop commenting on the articles when these trolls sit there and constantly create an aggressive, hostile atmosphere toward those whom they don’t like.”
Even worse than the creation of a hostile virtual environment is the impact trolling has on newspapers’ commenting policies. According to political analyst Yaroslav Grekov, some Russian sites, including the liberal media outlet Gazeta.ru, have banned commenting entirely because of Internet trolls. Grekov spoke of a message that appeared on Gazeta.ru: “In connection with aggravated socio-political circumstances and the heated tone of discussion, we have decided to block comments.”
Trolls influence the Internet by allowing only one point of view to hold sway. At this point in time, Russia desperately needs open dialogue about its government’s actions at home and abroad. Trolling silences that dialogue.