How to spot a troll…

Yesterday I had an interesting experience. A Facebook friend I’ll call Barbara posted a meme promoting a moveon.org petition calling for Nancy Pelosi to be removed from office. This was the morning after Pelosi famously ripped up the print copy of Trump’s State of the Union address.

The petition’s stated cause: “By ignoring the Title of Nobility Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution), ignoring the attacks on freedom of the Press, ignoring blatant obstruction of justice and abuse of pardons, proves Nancy Pelosi is incapable of keeping this country free of a potential dictatorship and must relinquish her position of Speaker of the House.”

Absurd, and later declaimed by MoveOn, the piece didn’t shock me as much as the fact that Barbara posted it. She is an extreme liberal. But she and I have argued before about her quick acceptance of propaganda and her entrenched hatred of Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton as a result of the 2016 campaign. Barbara is a fervent supporter of Bernie Sanders.

I commented on her post, questioning why on earth she would fall for such a vitriolic attack on Pelosi when she alone has done more for the progressive cause during the reign of Trump than any other single figure. Our discussion was quickly interrupted by a Facebook ‘friend’ of hers named Paul F. Delargy, Jr.  Paul posted a string of memes showing Pelosi cartooned as a villain in various settings. One was of Trump and Pelosi standing side by side, half dressed in revealing clothes with exaggerated bodily features like Pelosi’s eyes and Trump’s belly. The meme’s text stated they were the same.

Amid the memes, Paul had little response to my questions. Barbara responded, immediately blaming the DNC for the app failure in Iowa as justification for her post of the anti-Pelosi meme. Several commenters pointed out the fallacies in her line of thought, to which her response was “and I keep getting accused of not facing reality… Keep defending the ones that you defend, the ones who keep the ones who could lead us into a better future from having power to change the party and see what happens. Primary the progressives into the ground.”

Okay, she and I have argued many times about the doubt I have that most of Sander’s promises would ever become reality in a situation where, as president, he would still have to get the proposed change through Congress. But more important in my view, Sanders has a lot of negatives that his supporters dismiss but which would be a field day for Republicans. But that’s beside the point of my topic here.

At one point, I visited Paul’s FB page, curious about him as a person. There was a generic flowery field as the header image. The inset photo of Paul showed a grizzled older man with a knit hat, holding a dog. There was no personal history and very few posts. Rushing off to errands in town, I mulled over my gut instinct that Paul was a troll. So when I returned home, I went back to Barbara’s post to further examine all of Paul’s posted memes denigrating Pelosi, the Democrats, and equating Democrats with Republicans.

I wasn’t completely shocked to discover that Paul’s memes and comments had vanished. Paul had vanished. I did a Google search on his name and found there was a real Paul F. Delargy Jr. living in a state near Barbara, age 80+, as found on whitepages.com. Another record gave his age as 91.

I don’t question the reality of Paul’s existence. I do question his presence on Facebook as an 80 or 91 year old man living with relatives. I question the photo I saw and I question his acuity with Facebook in accessing and posting so many memes on the specific issue of Pelosi. I especially question Mr. Delargy’s quick exit from Facebook after I visited his page.

This stinks of trolling with the intent of dividing Democratic Party supporters. Wednesday morning on the heels of Trump’s SOTU address was a moment for progressives to cling to any good news they could find. Pelosi’s actions at the end of his speech was one such bit of good news, reminding us that Trump isn’t yet king and we still have an election to win. It makes perfect sense that trolls working for Trump would try to pull her down. But it makes no sense that they would post a disgusting image of Trump equating him with Pelosi.

I’m left with the conclusion that Facebook Paul was a Russian troll, doing what they do best—assuming a false identity to spread mistrust and disinformation among Americans in order to damage our democracy. As stated in an intelligence report on the 2016 election and many other sources,

Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.[1], [2]

Barbara is a perfect target for trollers like Facebook Paul. She posts up to 80 times a day on topics as widely varied as the purported innocence of Julian Assange, puppies up for adoption, and personal bits about her garden or family business. But her primary focus is political. She’s not particularly astute about technical aspects of social media and seems rather confused about where her allegiance lies. She’s concerned, she wants to help, and yet can’t seem to sort out the absurd or harmful from the helpful materials that cross her newsfeed, which is fed by over 1,400 ‘friends.’ Her habit of prolific Facebook posting and lack of critical analysis of the information she receives makes her ideal as a vehicle for troll posts.

So what might help protect Barbara and the rest of us from trolls like Facebook Paul?

First, when someone asks to be your ‘friend,’ don’t just be flattered. Check them out. Look at the person’s Facebook page for background information, photos, etc. How many friends do you have in common and do you personally know any of those friends? If the person doesn’t have a long record of Facebook posts and most of the photos are the person alone, chances are this person is not real.

Do a Google search.

Be suspicious.

We weren’t always under siege by trolls, so it might be helpful to go back through your friend list to check those you don’t know personally.

Always be on guard against any posts—memes or comments—that don’t quite pass the smell test. Before you share a questionable post, check the source. Do a Google search on a key phrase or section of the post, see what turns up. Ask your FB friends if they’ve seen this post before and what they think of it.

The most important thing we can do for the future of this nation is to not be part of any effort to muddy facts and raise a hue and cry when you find misinformation. It’s up to us.

~~~

Further reading: The Atlantic,  The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President: How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election”

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_interference_in_the_2016_United_States_elections

[2] https://www.wired.com/story/russia-ira-propaganda-senate-report/

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