The Biggest Trolling Operation in History

Nøkken by Theodor Kittelsen

If you’ve been following the increasingly strange news about Russia’s Internet Research Agency and their involvement in U.S. political life you might find this in-depth look at their activity — from way back in June of 2015 — as fascinating as I do.

I friended as many of the trolls on Facebook as I could and began to observe their ways. Most of the content they shared was drawn from a network of other pages … clearly meant to produce entertaining and shareable social-media content. There was the patriotic Spread Your Wings, which described itself as “a community for everyone whose heart is with America.” Spread Your Wings posted photos of American flags and memes about how great it was to be an American, but the patriotism rang hollow once you tried to parse the frequent criticisms of Obama, an incoherent mishmash of liberal and conservative attacks that no actual American would espouse. There was also Art Gone Conscious, which posted bad art and then tenuously connected it to Obama’s policy failures, and the self-explanatory Celebrities Against Obama. The posts churned out every day by this network of pages were commented on and shared by the same group of trolls, a virtual Potemkin village of disaffected Americans.

After following the accounts for a few weeks, I saw a strange notification on Facebook. One account, which claimed to be a woman from Seattle named Polly Turner, RSVPed to a real-life event. It was a talk in New York City to commemorate the opening of an art exhibit called Material Evidence.

It starts to turn into something more like a paranoid pulp thriller when the author visits the Material Evidence art show and finds out that the show is somehow connected to the same trolls who put on the Columbian Chemicals Plant explosion hoax that started the whole investigation off. Then it just gets crazier.

Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.

The whole thing is fascinating. It might not be a bad idea to check the About page of those Facebook pages you’re following and make sure they’re pointing back to real organizations made up of real people.

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