Strange things you see at the Coffee Garden.
After reading a murder of mysteries by Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler recently, I’ve taken a sleuthsome turn myself. It’s interesting, what turns up if you pay attention.
I’ve been wondering what the Russian trolls that threw the 2016 election to Donald Trump are like. Reading accounts of the Internet Research Agency’s St. Petersburg operation, where an office full of Russian trolls spent the run-up to the 2016 election blogging and pushing as many people’s buttons on as much social media as possible in a cacophonic symphony of support for the things that would get Donald Trump elected, I imagined plump, pasty-faced, ex-junior-level Soviet bureaucrats.
One Friday afternoon last month I was at the Coffee Garden, post-Agatha Christie, post-anti-gravity treatment (a nap), sipping my anti-anti-gravity treatment (an iced Americano). As my eyes focused, I looked up to see two Russian trolls at the next table.
No! Really! I didn’t believe it at first. They weren’t actually too trollish. A little more Russian than you or me. Like Steve Buscemi as a youngish Nikita Khrushchev in The Death of Stalin rather than Vladimir Putin. They interspersed their slightly accented English with “da” a lot and sat facing each other over late-model 15” Mac laptops opened to what appeared to be chat rooms.
What really caught my attention was a headline reading “Current Elections” that flashed on the screen of the troll at the screen next to me. (Poor trollcraft!) He was following threads and posting comments. That’s not an uncommon activity at the Coffee Garden, but these boys were going at it with a particular industriousness.
The reason for their industriousness became apparent later that afternoon when I read that the Justice Department had just indicted 10 Russian intelligence officers on charges of conspiring to hack the Democrats during the 2016 campaign. The trolls were probably under orders (though good trolls don’t need orders) to put their fingers on the scales of public opinion by posting on as many alt-reality web sites/forums as possible.
In spying/propaganda/politics, one of the most important roles is an “agent of influence,” traditionally highly placed in society, government or the media. The internet has made agents of “mass media influence” possible. They don’t need to be highly placed. They just have to have access to as many mass media accounts/forums/threads as they can juggle.
According to Wiki, “Agents of influence are often the most difficult agents to detect, as there is seldom material evidence that connects them with a foreign power….
“Most commonly they serve the interests of a foreign power in one of three ways: either as a controlled agent directly recruited and controlled by a foreign power; as a ‘trusted contact’ that consciously collaborates to advance foreign interests but are not directly recruited or controlled by a foreign power; or as a ‘useful idiot’ that is completely unaware of how their actions further the interests of a foreign power.”
I would guess that these boys weren’t “useful idiots” like Trump’s 400-lb. teenager in New Jersey or alt-right fellow travelers but rather “trusted contacts”—Russian nationals living the good life in America. If the new Tesla I saw them drive off in is any indication,they are living much better than their fellow workers in St. Petersburg.
How many Russian trolls are there? During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had thousands of undercover agents in the western democracies. At the end of the cold war they may have all packed up and gone home. More likely they were so comfortably embedded that they stayed here and went back to work when Putin and mother Russia needed them.
Could thousands of Russian trolls be responsible for all the illicit internet traffic muddying social media? By illicit, I mean “fake” as in fake Facebook members, fake Facebook members’ “likes” and the like. Virtually all the big internet presences have had to adjust their inflated growth “numbers” downward as they finally admit the extent to which trolls, bots and spam make up their traffic.
All of this fake internet traffic is as much a danger to our democracies as it is to the bottom line of companies like Facebook and Google.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.