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Classroom connection: What ‘professional trolls’ want


While most people tend to think of internet trolls as obnoxious personas who provoke others into infuriating exchanges online, two disinformation experts at Clemson University argue that that “professional trolls” are far more likely to use positive ideological messages that affirm people’s existing beliefs to accomplish their goals of sowing division and distrust.

“Effective disinformation is embedded in an account you agree with,” Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren write in an article posted Nov. 25 on Rolling Stone’s website. “The professionals don’t push you away, they pull you toward them.”

Manipulating emotions

Professional disinformation practitioners also use accurate stories about valid issues — but selectively. For example, they might home in on stories that undermine trust in American institutions, or subtly manipulate our emotions by focusing on “cultural stress points,” such as religion or homophobia, that are known to provoke feelings of disgust toward people with different beliefs or ideologies. They also attack moderates, and share links and comments that support candidates and activists further away from the political center. And because so many of our social media profiles work the same way — selectively sharing information that affirms our viewpoints and existing beliefs, often by demonizing or belittling “the other side” — it’s challenging for social media companies and others to catch those doing so with a deceitful motive

Minimizing vulnerability

But Linvill and Warren, both associate professors at Clemson, also offer some advice to help minimize our vulnerability to these campaigns. These include the need to question our own biases, to stop believing and re-sharing posts from anonymous users online (for example, accounts using a hashtag we’re sympathetic with) and to engage in “digital civility” with those we disagree with. That is, seek common ground and resist the urge to dismiss or demean.

Russia’s goals, the authors warn, were “never just about elections”; they also were (and are) to encourage us “to vilify our neighbor and amplify our differences because, if we grow incapable of compromising, there can be no meaningful democracy.”

More on trolls and bots

“Why the fight against disinformation, sham accounts and trolls won’t be any easier in 2020” (Alexandra S. Levine, Nancy Scola, Steven Overly and Cristiano Lima, Politico).

“The not-so-simple science of social media ‘bots’” (Rory Smith and Carlotta Dotto, First Draft).

For Educators: ‘Digital civility’ exercise

As a project, have groups of students create concise, easy-to-remember “digital civility” guidelines for their friends and family members.

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