Understanding the inner workings of trolls

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

Make no mistake, the 2022 elections will be fought not in campaign sorties or public debates but on our phones and laptops. Social media is the new battleground, trolls are the new soldiers and messages are the weapons of today.

Administration candidates have an advantage since their trolls are firmly in place. Although they will never admit it, I have it on good information that their army of trolls are managed (and funded) by no less than a department of government, under the supervision of an undersecretary. For brevity, let us call this undersecretary the “Soft Master.”

Analytics derived from social media listening platforms estimate that there were approximately 250,000 unique accounts tagged as “pro-Duterte trolls” last year. The actual number of individuals is significantly lower since trolls operate numerous accounts. Out of all active trolls, about 30 percent are organic (real people with real convictions), while the remainder consists of paid individuals under the employ of public relations or messaging agencies.

I have come to know the inner workings of trolls from first hand experience as an inquiring client. A messaging agency quoted me P5 million for a 30-day messaging campaign. When hired, the messaging agency contracts professional trolls who, in turn, manage their own army of “smurfs.” The more smurfs, the higher the fees of trolls, but rates start at P60,000 per month. The majority of smurfs consist of students and idle housewives. The smurfs typically operate ten accounts each. They are recruited by trolls and given a weekly allowance to spread the propaganda. Bonuses are given for a quota of “likes” and comments. This is why smurfs and trolls goad the public to engage. The budget dictates the number of trolls to be deployed in a campaign.

Another practice of messaging agencies is to purchase existing social media accounts from people with a large base of followers. There are many for sale. They use these accounts to spread the propaganda.

The Soft Master provides distinct versions of messages for the masses, the mainstream and the intellectuals and a script for rebuttals for each. The messages change depending on who they want to attack, which issue they want to defend and which “truth” they want to spin. Maintaining an army of troll requires organization and money.

Using social media to manipulate the minds of the people is insidious, treacherous and immoral because it distorts the truth. In the world of social media, the “truth” and “facts” are blurred by disinformation. The objective of those who purvey disinformation is not to make you believe their narrative, but to make you doubt everything, including news from reputable agencies. This leaves the public confused as to what is real and what is fake. The public becomes disconnected from reality and vulnerable to influence. And this (the ability to influence the public’s mind) is the point of it all. A skeptical mind is more susceptible to believing lies, after all. Thus, it is the Soft Master’s objective to perpetuate skepticism and doubt.

The tragedy is that social media networks like Facebook and Tiktok reward messages that perpetuate disinformation and negativity. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved that it takes 10 hours for fake stories and those with strong negative sentiments to reach 60,000 users. In contrast, it takes 60 hours for legitimate news and those carrying positive messages to reach the same.

Although social media networks have the ability to amp-up whatever messages they want, they choose to amplify fake news and negativity since they lead to more engagements. Facebook earned $86 billion in profits last year.

And since social media networks want users to spend more time in their sites, it feeds them more articles that confirm the articles they previously read. Users are led deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole until they become firm believers of it.

The result is a society with stark opposing beliefs. In the Philippines, Duterte supporters have become more rabid than ever while those in the opposition are equally ardent. Each conjure their own realities and versions of facts. All these lead to a wider social divide.

The EU, the UK and US all recognize that social media networks have the ability to manipulate minds. Hence, they are putting legislation in place to control their reach and sway. The same should be done in the Philippines. But until legislation is enacted, our best defense is to validate everything we read with hard facts. Facts can be obtained by referencing credible news agencies, looking into raw statistics and by giving more credence to evidence-based reasoning. Above all, we should not react to messages that are posted by trolls. Doing so only deepens their influence.

In the run-up to the 2022 elections, the opposition has no choice but to battle it out on social media. True, the Duterte camp has a head start, but as we have seen in the Biden campaign, the incumbent can be beaten by an equivalent army of “good trolls” (known as angels) and appropriate messaging.

Since trolls is a numbers game, the opposition will have to engage messaging agencies if only to match the mass of the Duterte trolls. Good thing trolls operate as a business and can be had for a price. But the angels are the true backbone of a formidable messaging campaign. Angels are civil society volunteers who spread the gospel of their candidate from a place of sincerity and conviction. Voters are not naïve and can detect authentic messaging from those whose sole purpose is to demolish, destroy and disinform.

As for appropriate messaging, purveying the right proposition (or the right idea) at the right time is what strategists refer to as “the edge of innovation.” Back in 2016, recall how the people hankered for a “strong” leader.” Intentionally or unintentionally, Mayor Duterte portrayed himself as such. Parlaying messages at the edge of innovation brought him from less than 2 million votes to a 15 million victory in five months.

Determining what messages are on the edge of innovation is a separate topic altogether. Suffice to say that they must address the people’s source of pain, angst and frustrations.

Trolls are an evil we must live with. But they can be beat with a counterpart of angels and an arsenal of messages on the edge of innovation.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook @Andrew J. Masigan


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