So-called troll armies are a big problem across the globe. Governments deploy them as part of online propaganda campaigns, as a tool to suppress opposition, to create alternative (and often confusing) narratives, and to exploit existing divisions in a populace. But do you have any idea what they really are?
Troll armies can take varying forms, but the concept is simple: a group of people assume false identities in order to participate in internet forums and social media to send — or suppress — a specific message. These armies use the internet to disseminate propaganda — that is, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” They use tactics such as retweeting or commenting on each other’s posts, with the aim of creating the semblance of a dominant and broadly accepted narrative. The people comprising an army can be government employees, but they may also be independent contractors who are paid per post. Not all troll armies are made up of government employees or paid individuals, however; the term has also been used to refer to people acting independently, or even to unmanned “bot” accounts programmed to spread certain messages.
Troll armies have implications for free expression, since they can interfere with our capacity to access information, flooding social media channels with information that is suspect. This interference can have an impact on our politics as well. That is especially troubling when we consider that people may be making critical decisions — such as whom to elect in the U.S. or French elections — based on the discourse they are exposed to online. The question is, can we counter-balance the influence of troll armies without harming the free and open internet?
Below, we take a look at what we know about the way troll armies work, and explore potential strategies for dealing with trolls in a way that supports human rights.
Russia’s troll armies
Russia has been using troll armies for at least three years to influence affairs in other countries. In 2014, Russian “trolls” flooded the web with pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian posts to further partition divided populations in Ukraine as a means of facilitating Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Using propaganda to change the narratives surrounding the conflict may have helped Russia to gain this territory with limited retaliation by Ukraine’s allies. More recently, news reports revealed that Russian “troll” accounts may also have influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election by spreading pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messages.
There are also reports from early in 2017 showing that Russia may have been using troll armies to disseminate propaganda in Sweden for the last couple of years, potentially as part of a long-term strategy to influence the next election and sway the country from its Western allegiances. Other European countries are becoming increasingly affected by or aware of Russian disinformation tactics as well, especially in the run-up to domestic elections. In France, for instance Russian troll armies have reportedly been supporting far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
It’s not just Russia. Troll armies are a global problem.
Even if it is dominating headlines, Russia is not the only country that employs troll army tactics to advance a state agenda. For years, China has been using its “50 Cent Army” to post a flood of pro-government messages on social media channels. Coupled with the country’s notorious acts of censorship, these messages are a means of maintaining the public image of overwhelming support for the government.
The United States is not above participating in this trend. Six years ago the U.S. government hired a software company to assist in its “online persona management services.” In this program, U.S. military personnel managed multiple fake social media accounts designed to counter enemy propaganda abroad. Although the government stated it would only use these services abroad, the contract is confidential, so we don’t know the specifics. Little has been written about this program since the news broke, but its aims seem no different from the Russian program and strategy for its troll armies: it exists to alter sentiment abroad to serve government objectives. There is no guarantee U.S. troll armies won’t be used domestically; after all, fighting “homegrown extremism” is a cornerstone of the so-called countering violent extremism (CVE) programs operated by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice.
It doesn’t stop there. The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, is said to have used “social media volunteers” to control messages during his 2014 campaign. This reportedly involved amplifying unfavorable messages, which would then- turn into violent hate speech against people who oppose Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also campaigned with the assistance of the “keyboard army” that combined negative messages about opponents and suppression of dissent with positive messages about Duterte. The Philippines provides an example of when troll armies can have dangerous and even fatal consequences, since members of this “army” commonly make death threats, and some activists who have spoken out against the government have indeed been killed under Duterte leadership.
There are a variety of reasons for using troll armies. Countries such as Israel, Ukraine, North Korea, and Turkey reportedly deploy them to promote diverse government agendas. Israel, for example, may be seeking to improve its reputation worldwide, while Ukraine and North Korea aim to discredit opposition countries.
Of course, as we note above, troll armies can sometimes be self-organized; as the French presidential election draws closer, there are reports that a combination of official and unofficial domestic troll armies are advocating on behalf of Marine Le Pen and aggressively against her opponents.This pattern is similar to the one we saw last year in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, when a self-proclaimed army of “deplorables” supported now-President Trump in a troll-like fashion.
Implications for human rights
Government use of trolls online, including bots, to build and counter specific narratives has implications for the fundamental right to free expression. Troll armies can threaten or abuse people expressing certain opinions online. The threat of retaliation, whether by official or unofficial troll armies, creates a chilling effect, making people reluctant to express what they fear could be controversial or unpopular opinions. This puts at risk our freedom of opinion, a right which the Tallinn Manual 2.0 asserts states cannot restrict via harassment.
Government use of troll armies is also closely linked to suppression of the right to a free press, a right implied under the right to free expression. Last year, we saw a dramatic increase globally in the number of journalists incarcerated, killed, or threatened for reporting stories that are unfavorable to a government. Troll armies have been known to initiate and amplify abuse against reporters who critique the government, in ways that negatively impact their lives, such as through death threats.
Approaches to dealing with troll armies that support human rights
It’s clear that there are significant human rights risks associated with government use of troll armies. Yet government responses to the problem carry their own risks to privacy, security, and the freedoms of opinion, expression, and association.
To start, there is no workable way to differentiate a troll army from any other group of activists using online platforms for political expression. Any attempt to counter the influence of troll armies would almost certainly also affect activists who aren’t working for any government. In addition, investigations of these armies — whether by governments or platforms — would be inherently intrusive.
Unfortunately, solutions proposed for dealing with troll armies often boil down to one thing: censorship. That is not the answer to these hard questions. Strategies such as targeting or reporting on troll networks could easily be abused to stifle expression broadly, including silencing the voices of people saying things those in power do not like. Since social media is increasingly intertwined with news media, some lawmakers around the world have suggested that sites like Facebook and Twitter should consider filtering messages. That too is a bad idea.
Instead, governments and companies must consider strategies that respect human rights. At Access Now, we believe that:
1.) Companies should have a transparent terms of service that reflects and does not conflict with rights-respecting law. When it comes to content take-downs, if there is a law that conflicts with a company’s term of service, then the law must prevail. Further, companies should not be deputized to implement the law, and take-downs should only be required when the content at issue has been adjudicated as unlawful by a judge. Access Now advocates that all tech companies must uphold concepts vital to human rights such as transparency and digital security, as well as diversity and openness.
2.) Companies must be clear, consistent, and respectful of human rights when taking down content. Any action taken by online platforms must respect human rights standards and should be in accordance with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights. Companies should at minimum establish rights-respecting policies on content restriction, undertake due diligence to know how their users — including troll armies — impact human rights, be prepared to challenge over-broad legal standards for content take-down, and take transparent and accountable steps to address any adverse impacts.
3.) Governments should commit to an international pledge not to use troll armies domestically or abroad. International organizations, such as the U.N., should explore the right to freedom of expression in relation to troll armies and related topics. For example, Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, state not only the rights to free opinion and expression, but further that “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” and “propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.”
As we’ve explained, troll armies have a real impact on human rights and global politics. Censorship is an easy answer, but it’s the wrong one. We agree with the Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE), which has stated that only a diverse and open media can effectively counter the effects of propaganda.