Ernest Hemingway once said that to be a great writer, you needed “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.”
These days, you need one just to navigate the internet.
The online world was supposed to be a zone of free expression, a democratic space where the truth would eventually prevail, because netizens were essentially rational, thinking beings capable of discerning fact from fiction, fabrication, false assumptions, wishful thinking, obfuscation, misdirection, propaganda, spin, half-truths, untruths and all manner of skullduggery.
That was before special-interest groups and their army of trolls took over.
Having tested and proven the effectiveness of social media in running political campaigns, partisan groups now routinely use web brigades to push propaganda to sway public opinion and advance their own agendas.
By inserting themselves into normal discourse on social media sites, this troll army attempts to give news events and current issues the spin that is to their own advantage.
The loudest noise seems to be coming from netizens both for and against the controversial policies of President Duterte.
The relative anonymity of cyberspace has a way of encouraging netizens to give free rein to their worst tendencies, especially where emotionally-charged political and social issues are concerned. Online discussions, say about the war on drugs and the alleged extrajudicial killings that have accompanied it, tend to escalate into virtual screaming matches where threats, curses, name-calling and other hate speech are par for the course.
Now the web has turned into an anarchic free-for-all where the mob rules, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as William Butler Yeats foresaw in his apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming.”
No wonder some evangelical Christians consider the internet the new Tower of Babel, where God, after the deluge, “confused the language of the whole world.”
In a recent hearing to address the problem of “cyber-bullying and misinformation on social media,” the Senate called on the Department of Education to take measures to educate the youth on the responsible use of social media, and to stop trolls from spreading “malicious misinformation,” fake news and hate speech.
Predictably, these moves soon sparked a deluge of online venom from netizens (and of course, trolls), not least because the proponents happened to be Senators Leila de Lima, a vocal critic of Duterte, and Sen. Bam Aquino, cousin of the former president.
The gist of the spew is that the hearing was part of a sinister “yellow” conspiracy to muzzle free speech, especially since pro-Duterte sites apparently have the numbers on social media.
The conspiracy theory gained steam when the Senate hearing was linked to an online petition to close down the popular Mocha Uson Blog, a pro-Duterte Facebook page which has been accused of spreading misinformation through, among other things, links to fake news sites.
But even as the petition gathered momentum, the petitioner himself was swamped by trolls, and shut down by Uson’s supporters.
Ironically, even as this was going on, free speech advocates spoke up in defense of Uson’s right to express her views, and the right of her four million followers to believe her.
Numbers are important in the world of social media.
Diehard Duterte supporters boast that the Mocha Uson Blog beats both the news site Rappler and this paper, hands down, in terms of followers, likes, shares and engagement. They cite this as proof that people no longer trust the mainstream media, which they see as “biased” against President Duterte.
The most extreme among them seem convinced that mainstream media are pawns of a sinister “yellow” conspiracy to bring him down.
Global trends indicate that more and more young people get their news from social media sites. Studies have also shown that many online news sites publish stories with little or no effort to verify them.
Given this state of affairs, Filipinos would do well to follow Hemingway’s prescription when going online.
Learning the infrastructure of misinformation is a good place to start developing your own “crap detector.”
It is said that the troll armies are like call center operations, and that there are at least three such huge operations in Metro Manila and in the north.
Trolls are the basic building blocks of that infrastructure. Originally someone who inserts himself into an online conversation to provoke a reaction or disrupt the discussion, today’s trolls are as likely to be pursuing specific communications objectives in support of one group against its perceived rival groups.
According to one study, organized online trolling is the most effective way to troll pages or groups to push an agenda. Often run through “boiler room”-type operations, these web brigades possess a structure:
Central Command is in charge of formulating core messages and online strategies.
Writers compose boilerplate responses to the issues selected by the Central Command, and in some cases actual articles for posting on social media and other sites.
Graphic artists and videographers create memes and videos for posting.
Community Influencers create social media groups that can be used to spread the messages generated by Central Command.
Monitoring teams keep an eye on the opposition’s websites and pages, sometimes infiltrating them to gather ammunition against them. This is then fed back to Central Command so they can craft their responses.
Troll accounts then spread the messages.
Part of the organism
“You inject the message into the real accounts, and they in turn will spread it to other people, and so on,” says a self-confessed troll who worked for one such organized group.
“The real accounts are submerged by the trolls. If you are a real person with a real account and we convince you, you become part of the organism.”
Social media is also a numbers game where one’s power is measured in terms of followers, shares, likes and engagement. In this virtual world, one can “clone” oneself with relative ease by creating any number of fake accounts, or set up “bots” to do the trolling automatically, thereby amplifying one’s “voice.”
Another component of the troll ecosystem are fake news websites and websites with unverified information, with which social media sites and blogs often share broad objectives as well as content.
For instance, the aforementioned Mocha Uson Blog Facebook page often gets newsfeeds from pro-Duterte news sites such as scoopitph.com, trendingnewsportal.net.ph and du30newsinfo.com.
This leads to the so-called “echo chamber” effect: the online community becomes an enclosed system where the core ideas of the reigning belief system are constantly reinforced, and opposing viewpoints are excluded or ridiculed.
The community exists in what is called a “filter bubble,” exposed only to ideas and opinions that they already agree with. Having “drunk the Kool-aid,” they are effectively inoculated from any outside ideas and dissenting opinions, like members of a cult.
Critical thinking is paralyzed.
“It’s social media mind conditioning,” says our former troll. He says the organized troll network he worked for even employed a psychologist to help craft messages that were more believable and persuasive.
A healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way in navigating today’s chaotic and confusing online environment. After all, it’s only misinformation if you believe it. TVJ