By Elkanah Kai Reyes
How the Internet Research Agency destabilised social media’s integrity
On the 13th anniversary of 9/11, residents of St. Mary Parish, Louisiana received a chilling message, “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,” the text read, “take shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.” As thousands of live updates began to emerge in Twitter, Facebook, and many other social media platforms, panic engulfed the residents of Louisiana as well as the rest of the online community. Moreover, through the widespread documentations of the events, depicting the Columbian Chemical Plant being engulfed in flames and panicked tweets talking about the harsh smoke and toxic fuels, the word about the explosion reached international news (Chen 2015). With everyone on edge, the distress of the American citizens tenfold as a Youtube video went viral. In the short video, a man behind a camera recorded his reaction to what seemed to be a group of ISIS members claiming responsibility for the chemical explosion. As news reports piled up one after the other, the fear of another 9/11 attack consumed the minds of the American citizens (Harris 2014). This event however, was all false.
There was no explosion. There was no smoke. The video was a lie. However, due to the thousands of live updates from “citizens” and the professionally executed and caricatured hoax, it became hard for civilians to distinguish what was real and what wasn’t. This deceptive event is one of the many illegitimate news and information that infects social media platforms like a virus. But why would someone spend so much effort in doing such a thing? What do they seek to achieve? Could this be classified as an extreme form of trolling? Fake news? Or an act of terrorism?
Trolling, but to what extent?
Terrorism is not trolling, but trolls can commit acts that can be classified as terrorism. This may seem like a far stretch, but it is not an idea that should be easily dismissed. Terrorism, in its most simplest definition, is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” (English Oxford Living Dictionaries) The Columbia Chemicals hoax, based on this definition, can be described as a terroristic act due to its target of causing distress to American civilians. And as one of the many hoaxes created that reigns similar to this, it also had a political agenda. This hoax and those similar to it has been linked to an elite force of professional trollers known as the Russian Troll Farm or, as they are best known as, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) (Chen 2015).
The IRA commences in many different forms of trolling, which, if defined in the context of a ‘troll farm’, is the act of attempting to “create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments” (Collins Dictionary). The IRA is present in many social media sites, but they are most commonly found on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and at the comment section of various news sites. With the task of promulgating Kremlin (Pro-Putin and Russia) Propaganda, the trolls of IRA aims to incite opposition against the enemies of Russia. Their attacks are most commonly centered towards the U.S., wherein their main goal is not to steer Americans towards pro-Russian ideologies, but to conspicuously turn the American citizens against their own government (Sheth 2017).
How the IRA utilised Facebook for Propaganda
A pressing issue that had arisen due to IRA’s propagandas was seen during the 2016 American Presidential Campaign, wherein over 100,000 USD worth of Facebook advertisement were bought by the IRA in order “to amplify divisive political issues across the political spectrum”. By creating advertisements that promoted political ideologies and conspiracy theories with exaggerated data and false information, the trolls of IRA made the attempt to sway the minds of the American citizens by feeding them with false information in order to steer them towards their own agendas (Isaac & Shane 2017).
Moreover, through the Internet Research Agency’s attempt to remain in anonymity in the online community, many had also been successful with circulating illegitimate information by posing as average American citizens who are concerned about an array of different political matters. One of IRA’s most successful post was created by an account called “Blacktivist”, which was ran by a Russian troll who sought to blend in with the Black Lives Matter Movement. Seeking to further exploit tension and steer up more anger in American societies, Blacktivist posted a fake video of a black man being pinned to the ground and mauled by a canine with the caption: “we live under a system of racism, and the police are letting us [African-Americans] know where we stand” (Parham 2017). This post had sparked outrage online, stirring up a stronger feeling against racism and police brutality, creating a larger divide between the African-American civilians and the men in blue.
Moreover, racism and police brutality is a pressing issue in the U.S.; however, the IRA did not sought to spread awareness in order to stop these forms of hatred. Instead, they wanted to add to the conversation by heating up the discussion and depicting the police force in a worse light, bringing fright to the African-American community and distrust in the National Police Department.
Social Media, the IRA, the Americans, and the Truth
The Internet Research Agency is notorious for its deceptive and manipulative ways of spreading Kremlin Propaganda, like destabilising the American nation. Moreover, many Americans and social media users had fallen victim to their false claims of facts, which caused confusion, anger, and distress in many online users.
The circulation of fake news online is easier than ever and can often be hard to distinguish. This had always been the struggles of the online community. For as long as there are diversities in beliefs, there will always be a troll who incites conflict and provoke reactions. Some trolls may do it for the “LOLs”, but those who do it with a higher propaganda, have a stronger will to destabilise groups and communities through the spreading of false information or committing acts that invokes hate and terror.
Moreover, fake news has a negative effect to both online and real-life communities–this is how social media had become a prop for the IRA propaganda.
1. CHEN, A. 2015. The Agency [online]. The New York Times. [Viewed 11 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.
2. COLLINS DICTIONARY, 2016. Troll Farm [Definition]. [Viewed 11 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/submission/17707/troll+farm.
3. ENGLISH OXFORD LIVING DICTIONARIES, n.d. Terrorism [Definition]. [Viewed 11 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terrorism.
4. EUROMAIDEN PRESS, 2016. Russian Trolls Attack Americans [online graphic design]. [Viewed 11 Nov 2017]. Available at: http://euromaidanpress.com/2016/07/27/russian-trolls-attack-americans/#arvlbdata.
5. HARRIS, J., 2014. ISIS Takes Responsibility For the Explosion in Centerville, CA . 11 Sept 2014. [Viewed 12 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2J6RvajSaA
6. ISAAC, M. & SHANE, S., 2017. Facebook’s Russia-linked Ads Came in Many Disguises [online]. The New York Times. [Viewed 12 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www. nytimes.com/2017/10/02/technology/facebook-russia-ads-.html7.
7. PARHAM, J., 2017. Russians Posing As Black Activists on Facebook is More Than Fake News [online]. Wired. [Viewed 12 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www.wired.com/ story/russian-black-activist-facebook-accounts/.
8. SHETH, S., 2017. ‘Our task was to set Americans against their own government’: New Details Emerge About Russian Trolling Operation [online]. [Viewed 12 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/former-troll-russia-disinformation-campaign-trump-2017-10.
9. WIRED, 2017. Here’s How Fake News Work (And How the Internet Can Stop It) [online graphic design]. [Viewed 11 Nov 2017]. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/russian -black-activist-facebook-accounts/.