Authoritarians used to be scared of social media, now they rule it

A new report from the Institute For the Future on "state-sponsored trolling" documents the rise and rise of government-backed troll armies who terrorize journalists and opposition figures with seemingly endless waves of individuals who bombard their targets with vile vitriol, from racial slurs to rape threats.

The report traces the origin of the phenomenon to a series of high-profile social media opposition bids that challenged the world's most restrictive regimes, from Gezi Park in Turkey to the Arab Spring.

After the initial rebellions were put down, authoritarians studied and adapted the tactics that made them so effective, taking a leaf out of US intelligence agencies' playbook by buying or developing tools that would allow paid trolls to impersonate enormous crowds of cheering, loyal cyber-warriors.

After being blindsided by social media, the authoritarians found it easy to master it: think of Cambodia, where a bid to challenge the might of the ruling party begat a Facebook-first strategy to suppress dissent, in which government authorities arrest and torture anyone who challenges them using their real name, and then gets Facebook to disconnect anyone who uses a pseudonym to avoid retaliation.

The rise of authoritarian troll armies has been documented before. Google's Jigsaw division produced a detailed report on the phenomenon, but decided not to publish it. Bloomberg, who have produced an excellent investigative supplement to the IFTF report that draws on a leaked copy of the Google research, implies that something nefarious happened to convince Google to suppress its research.

The IFTF and Bloomberg reports arrive just as Twitter has announced the deletion of 70,000,000 accounts alleged to be linked to authoritarian information control, and just as Facebook announced that it would delete "misinformation that incites violence."

Implicated in the Bloomberg article and IFTF report are the campaigns of India's Narendra Modi, Malta's Labour Party, Argentine president Mauricio Macri, Austria's Heinz-Christian Strache, Azerbaijan's ruling families, Bahrain's ruling elite, China's Communist Party, the Ethiopian government, the outgoing Mexican president Peña Nieto, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Russia and Putin, the Saudi royals, Turkey's Erdogan, the People's Army of Vietnam, South Korea's internal spy agency, former Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, and the Venezuelan state.

The campaigns have striking similarities, suggesting that they may have a common contractor or state-sponsored supplier, and/or that they are closely observing one another and learning from each other.

The fact that the threats are designed to look like they are coming from crowds of anonymous social media users makes them more ominous in some cases than if they had been issued directly by the government.

“That’s the genius of these types of attacks,” said Carly Nyst, one of the authors of the Institute for the Future report and an expert on the intersection of human rights and technology. “It’s hard to distinguish between what’s being manufactured on purpose and what is a popular uprising of opinion against the target.”

One question left unanswered by the reports is why so many nations developed strikingly similar trolling operations at around the same time. There is some evidence of information-sharing among countries, consultants and government functionaries.

A Global Guide to State-Sponsored Trolling [Michael Riley, Lauren Etter and Bibhudatta Pradhan/Bloomberg]

Government Sponsored Trolling [Carly Nyst and Nicholas Monaco/Institute For the Future]

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