Fake News: The Next Evolution in Weaponized Trolling

When I was 5 years old, waiting in a checkout line at Winn Dixie, I learned that vampires were among us.  Vampires! I didn’t know much about the real world back then, only what experience, television, movies, documentaries, and my father’s books taught me; but I did know vampires were bad and that newspapers never lie.  

It turns out, I was wrong about one of those things.

It took some convincing, but my researcher father – with his PhD in mineralogy and penchant for all things scientific and factual – gave me an extensive lesson in journalistic integrity and credibility that day.

Not all newspapers are created equal.

As an adult, I can roll my eyes and laugh at the absurdity of my believing anything published in the Weekly World News – the newspaper that famously brought us Bat Boy – but I just didn’t know any better back then. I truly thought that anything that presumed to posit itself as a newspaper was something I could count on to deliver the truth.

Boy was I wrong.

Fake news has been with us for hundreds of years, but it’s especially been a hot topic more recently. This phenomenon has really taken off and grabbed hold of our online culture, hijacking us off of the information highway. The 2016 presidential campaign last year, for example, was riddled with fake news articles infiltrating the political conversation and filling our Facebook and Twitter feeds with everything from little white lies to outright fabrications concerning our various candidates and their agendas. Things got very messy.

Consider “Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory about a secret child-sex ring operating out of a D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. Purportedly, a series of e-mails belonging to John Podesta, chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign at the time, and released by WikiLeaks, contained evidence of a secret code used by pedophiles in child-sex-trafficking rings. These e-mails allegedly linked prominent members of the Democratic party to these rings and to restaurants around the country which served as their bases of operation.  

What happened? Well, the conspiracy was quickly and furiously debunked but not before one man decided to take vigilante justice upon Comet Ping Pong. Guns blazing, he sought to take these people down once and for all – never mind that all he’d find there was pizza.

Fortunately nothing much came of the incident. No one was hurt. Still, it’s alarming. It’s unsettling that things got this far. That could have gone very, tragically wrong.

So, what’s going on here? What does this say about the current climate in the States? The world? What’s it say about our culture? What is this trend in fake news all about? In other words…

What is really happening here?

After all, while many of the stories to come out in the past couple of years aren’t nearly as “troll-y” as the ones in the satirical Weekly World News, they are still fabrications that arrest our attentions and in some cases, even convince members of the population of their “truth.” 

Well, speaking of trolls, let’s talk about them for a minute. You see, at glance it may seem like there is not much to compare the two, but on closer inspection, purveyors of fake news and trolls aren’t really so different. The mechanisms driving them both are very much alike. They are born of the same culture, spread like the same disease, and are both propelled by the explicit purpose of wreaking havoc to the detriment of others and to benefit of themselves. In fact, I put to you that fake news is really just a highly specialized, weaponized, step up in the evolutionary chain of the classic troll.

Bear with me now and I’ll explain exactly how this can be.

Dr. Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Mercer University and the 2016 winner of the Nancy Baym Annual Book Award, explored the culture and mindset of trolls in her book, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping The Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. In her research, Phillips found that the behaviors exhibited by trolls were not unique to them. Many of the qualities which make successful trolls also happen to be qualities lauded to make successful Western societies. She claims that, “trolls and trolling behaviors replicate and are animated by a number of pervasive cultural logics” and are “characterized by a profound sense of technological entitlement born of normalized expansionist and colonist ideologies.” In other words, trolls come to the internet armed with the age-old “go forth and conquer” mentality which is the backbone of colonialism and Western society. 

Trolls also share a “phallocentric” (or “male-focused”) culture with Western society. That is to say that trolls value “rationality, assertiveness, dominance over female-gendered traits [such as] sentimentality, cooperation, conciliation.” Phillips also states that trolls like to “align themselves with adversarial rhetoric.” Trolls like a good fight. They thrive on conflict.  

“To go further, to go faster, to go where no one […] has gone before – this is, at least is said to be, the defining feature of western culture,” and the one fueling online trolls, according to Phillips. A troll is a grotesque of the American dream.

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All of those traits valued by our society and which mean future success get twisted into something ugly and mean in trolls. To make matters worse, a recent article in Business Insider covered a study about trolling which used algorithms to find patterns in trolling. The study found a correlation between time of day, day of the week, and particular situations that lead to trolling. For example, Mondays and late nights were seen consistently to be prime time for trolling. Furthermore, trolling was more likely to happen and escalate if the comments on a thread began with a troll in the first place, as opposed to a well articulated or thought out response relevant to the original post. What this study posits is that trolling is actually in sync with human mood fluctuations which we all have. All it takes is a bad day or bad moment and the beast comes out. In conclusion, the study found that we all have the capacity to troll given the right situation and environment and that it was not due to traits inherent in a select, maladjusted few. This is significant because it goes to show you that, given the culture governing the custom of our country, there lurks a troll inside each and every one of us just waiting to pounce when the scrappy mood hits.  

And it makes sense. We live in a capitalist nation, one driven by economy. It’s survival of the fittest in the business sense. For so long the American dream has been to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, work hard, and succeed and we do so through consumerism. The traits that make a good businessperson tend to make for very competitive individuals with their eyes ever on the prize, whatever it may be. It only makes sense that these attitudes would spill over into cyberspace and feed the trolls. What makes a good businessperson makes a good troll.

This is where fake news comes in.

Media is also a business. Social media platforms, television and radio stations, print, news outlets – these are all in the business of communicating something to an audience. While most of these outlets are not necessarily in the business of dispensing false information, it is virtually impossible to escape bias altogether. Deconstructing those media biases is exactly what Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media is all about. Chomsky posits that, since most mass media organizations are owned by powerful businesses, their content is driven by those business elite’s interests, basically making them great propaganda machines directed at the masses. He asserts that news organizations, for example, may not put out false information, but they can intensely militate their content through their “selection of their topics, the distribution of concerns, what they choose emphasize about a topic, the framing of certain issues, the filtering of information and by the bounding of debate.” In other words, news organizations may be in the business of the truth but they parse out that truth in ways best befitting their interests.

So naturally, when we start to get selective with the truth, it doesn’t take long for people to start to bend the rules and push those limits further and further. I said before that trolls and purveyors of fake news act in self-interest. According to Phillips, most trolls do it for the “lulz,” which is to say the laughs or kicks at someone else’s expense. What about fake news? Well, it can be a number of reasons. Depending on what kind of fake news you happen to encounter, the reasoning behind it may differ. A 2015 article in the journal Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology broke down fake news into three categories as follows: Humorous Fakes, like the satirical pieces in The Onion, Serious Fabrications, like the exploitive celebrity gossip run in tabloids like the National Enquirer, and Large-Scale Hoaxes, like “Pizzagate.” Each of these has a distinct target. In the case of the humorous fakes, the target audience is one that would be appreciative of satire and current events. Readers are usually aware of the fact that the stories featured are presented in comedic form and not meant to be taken seriously.

Serious fabrications, are loaded with speculations and hearsay. These publications appeal to readers’ more morbid curiosities, particularly when it comes to the inner workings of celebrity life. There’s just something in human nature that houses an uncharitable desire to peel away the veneer and goggle at what lays bare.

Both Humorous fakes and serious fabrications are designed to entertain each in their own way. Large-Scale hoaxes, on the other hand, seek to purposely mislead their readers under the pretense of being authentic news. Stories such as ‘Pizzagate,” or  the one where President Obama signed an executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance are created with the explicit purpose of inciting strong emotions. Large-Scale hoaxes are meant to whip their readers, which tend to fall into the most partisan segments of the population (the most extreme on both sides of the spectrum), into a frenzy of emotion – be it anger, suspicion, righteousness – and sway them towards a particular point of view. The more outrageous the claim, the more “clickbaity,” (compelling readers to click on the link through manipulative emotional appeals) therefore yielding the most views. 

There are a couple of underlying motivations for running fake news. The first of these is strictly economical.

Take 23-year-old Cameron Harris who earned $5,000 dollars singlehandedly stirring the conspiracy pot during the elections by penning a story alleging that a custodial worker had unwittingly discovered a store of fraudulent Clinton vote ballots smuggled away in an Ohio warehouse. It wasn’t that Harris was particularly invested in the election, per say. His mundane reasoning? “I spent the money on student loans, car payments, and rent.” Money.

Money and power do tend to be motivators in all capitalist enterprises; that’s sort of the point. Remember? “Go forth and conquer!” But what happens when the circumstances don’t fit your particular agenda? Well, you make them fit.

“Truth is nice, but victory is better.” Phillips uses this phrase to sum up the logic and debate style embraced by trolls. Trolls, according to Phillips, embrace texts like Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Controversy (AKA The Art of Being Right) which promote something called “Controversial Dialect,” which is “the art of disputing, and of disputing in such way as to hold one’s own, whether one is in the right or wrong.”

“Truth is nice, but victory is better.” 

This is the very backbone of fake news. Just as mass media organizations may frame or emphasize issues in a way that benefits the interests of the businesses that own them, purveyors of fake news tailor their own product to the needs of their main interests, pushing the envelope well past the ethical limit.

But who’s interests? Here in lies the crux of the second reason people create fake news, and here we’ve opened up a can of worms. You see, there is never a shortage of people grappling for money and power. The sky is the limit…and even then…

Consider the political implications of this movement.

According to a recent article on Defense One by Brad Allenby and Joel Garraeu, Co-directors of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, entitled “Weaponized Narrative is the New Battlespace,” the future of warfare is the narrative. The article claims that, due to the inordinate amounts of information at our fingertips these days, people can easily become overwhelmed by it all. When faced with this crushing excess of information, “the tendency to retreat into simpler narratives becomes stronger.” Humans look for patterns and need for things to make sense. Often times, that’s much harder to do when matters become convoluted or complex as they do in politics, but weaponized narratives craft their stories in such a way that are “emotionally satisfying” at the cost of being factually correct. You can see how this might pose a problem.

When emotions run high, reason takes a hard hit. What happens is that sects of the population accept these narratives as their truth and this makes them vulnerable to further manipulation. According to the article, contradictory narratives will be rejected and anyone outside of their sect will be “demonized.” It’s us versus them. Again, this adversarial method employed by trolls finds its place in the broader scope. Weaponized narratives chip away at rationality, painting a target squarely on our “female-gendered” traits and exploit human emotion expertly.

When employed successfully, the weaponized narrative can have devastating effects. This tactic is a highly evolved version of the classic troll, who manipulates their targets for “lulz.” The weaponized narrative expands the empire of the troll, building veritable troll armies employed by high level businesses or political powers. Think of it as Techno-Psychological warfare, if you will.

Just consider the implications of this.

“Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.”

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Which brings us back to…

“Truth is nice, but victory is better.” 

You see this today.”Pizzagate” is only one example of a smaller-scale weaponized narrative. There were also the bots that allegedly infiltrated the political conversation during the 2016 election to sway the votes. And ISIS has been armed with the weaponized narrative for years. In a piece run by The Atlantic called “War Goes Viral,” Emerson Brooking and P.W. Singer discuss how ISIS’ proficiency with manipulating social media has made them successful both in recruitment and in their operations. Just with social media, Twitter hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS for example, ISIS was able to recruit 30,000 foreign fighters, from 100 different countries.  

How did they do this? Well, according to the article, it was through the power of narrative. Heavily armed with an online presence and more modestly armed with very real, material weapons, ISIS stormed cities documenting their conquests along the way. The invited people to follow and track their progress using a smartphone app invented by ISIS. The results were terrifying. Any dissenter or resistance was met with violence and then glorified in these online postings. It made them larger than life. 

“Immaculately staged photos, filtered through Instagram, transformed a ragtag force riding in dusty pickup trucks into something larger than life. Armies of Twitter bots twisted small, one-sided skirmishes into significant battlefield victories. Hashtags were created and pushed (and others hijacked) to shape and hype the story.” 

So the outlook was bleak for those standing against ISIS. It just seemed that, if ISIS had set its sights on your city, you could kiss it goodbye, regardless of whether or not that was feasible.

And it worked too. Even with as few as 1,500 fighters, ISIS took Mosul – a city of 1.8 million, which was armed to the teeth with 25,000 fighters of their own. They were spooked.

This is how forces build momentum. This is how the weaponized narrative gives power to the wizard behind the curtain of fake news. This is how trolling evolves from a lone wolf behind a screen to conquerers at the seat of an empire. 

All it takes is a powerful narrative and people willing to buy and feed into it – which is easier when the situation seems desperate enough. There is undeniable power in words – a far greater power than most seem people seem aware or are willing to admit and yet, the evidence is all around us. From a troll on Reddit, to The Enquirer, to “Pizzagate,” words create narratives and these narratives shape our perspectives whether we know it or not. They challenge us and manipulate our emotions, making us feel moved to laughter, anger, sadness, or terror. They can inform or fool us. They can build people up or tear them down. Laws, our Constitution, the Bible – words words words. There is such unbelievable power in words. 

So in a way, maybe Weekly World News wasn’t so far off the mark. There are those in this world who lurk in shadows, revel in discord, and feed on humanity. They sit comfortably behind their computer screens, plotting, dividing, and typing furiously. They troll. They mobilize. They weaponize.

I was right after all.

Vampires are among us.

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