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Caution! Trolls Ahead...

15 June 2016
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Victor GOTIȘAN, media researcher
Definition(s): Trolling is a violation of internet rules and it is often done with the purpose to initiate or catalyze a conflict.
A troll is a person who: a) spreads animosity in the online world by using personal attacks, which usually have no arguments, and by posting aggressive content, with the clear intention to instigate the readers, so that they react emotively; b) disturbs a discussion or a constructive conversation, very often with the purpose to amuse himself/herself. Claire Hardaker mentions that the main intention of trolls is to „ provoke animosities and break out or worsen conflicts, simply for their self-entertainment”.
Political trolling
Paraphrasing Lenin’s words, we could say that political trolls are the „useful idiots” of the politicians or political parties. They are online instruments of politicians and political parties that do (dirty) politics with someone else’s hands – in this case, through the agency of virtual anonym persons.  
Political trolls are, in most cases, persons paid to discuss and engage themselves in online debates, supporting the cause of those who pay them. This habit is quite widespread in the world. For example, there are companies in Russian Federation which pay actual armies of trolls to post comments on online platforms and social networks. The publication The Atlantic wrote about a case, in which a person from the Russian Federation was hired by a company from Saint Petersburg to post 100 comments a day on certain online platforms, in exchange for „1,180 rubles ($36.50) and a free lunch”.
Another example is China. Recently, a group of researchers from the Harvard University (USA) have elaborated a study (How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument) which shows that, in the last 5 years, the Chinese government has invested a lot of resources – both human and financial – in online propaganda, especially concerning the social networks. This way, the report mentions the fact that the Chinese government has hired around 2 million persons, in order to write almost half a billion posts a year. The majority of these trolls are public servants, who have even received a name - „50c Party” – given the fact that they are paid 50 cents per post. Don’t you think that we’ve seen something similar in the Republic of Moldova?
The Republic of Moldova. The political parties and politicians from the Republic of Moldova hire, in many cases, such persons for this „mission”. These persons – the trolls – aim to: a) polish the image and the successes of the „employer”; b) discredit the „employer’s” political opponents. You can find many examples of this by accessing and reading the comments on the official Facebook pages of political parties and politicians from the Republic of Moldova.  
Follow the rule: “Don’t feed the trolls”
The unwritten slogan of the trolls is: „ …there is no ethics. There is only the right of the superior to rule the inferior”. Namely because of this, the major problem is that a minority (the trolls) can ruin a website, a forum, a discussion or a subject proposed for discussion by a majority.    

Which might be the antidote(s) to this phenomenon and its followers?

  1. Excluding the comment section. For (certain) blogs, websites or personal online pages (especially those, which are quite popular), this might be a solution. Still, this tactic might not be reliable for the small online institutions, simply because one of the ways in which they gain popularity is the interaction with the users.
  2. Filtering the comments and the so-called UGC (user generated content). For example, the online versions of some newspapers, the editors of which filter the comments and decide which comments written by the users they should answer. The weak point of this solution is that a lot of time is wasted on filtering, approving and answering these comments.
  3. Pre-moderating procedures – when the content (the comments) necessitate the preventive approval of the moderators of an online platform or a social network – and the post-moderating, when the posted content can be modified after its publication. In both cases, the problem of censorship occures. However, until we elaborate a “code of conduct” for the online world and learn to have a proper culture during a dialogue, this could be the new method of fighting against trolling.  
  4. Say “no” to online anonymity! Facebook, Google and Gizmodo have requested and still are militating for the elimination of online anonymity. However, this could be a solution for the democratic societies, where real justice exists, where the right to self-expression is guaranteed and the online world is truly free and regulated. The major question is: Is this an applicable solution for the countries with an authoritarian or totalitarian government, where the dissidents or opposition forces can only express themselves anonymously?      
  5. The elaboration and adoption of legal and normative amendments which would fight against (some) poisonous elements of trolling. For example, in Great Britain, the section 127 from the Communications Act of 2003 says that it is an offence to send messages which “are extremely offensive and include indecent, obscene or threatening content”. In the USA, all of the 50 states have adopted laws against online/cyber harassment and agression.
Conclusion: Rule No. 14 of the internet says: „Do not argue with trolls – it means that they win”. Jason Fortuny was one of the “famous” trolls; once, he himself said that “trolling will die only when trolls will not be taken seriously”. So don’t feed the trolls.
The article was published within the Advocacy Campaigns Aimed at Improving Transparency of Media Ownership, Access to Information and promotion of EU values  and integration project, implemented by the IJC, which is, in its turn, part of the Moldova Partnerships for Sustainable Civil Society project, implemented by FHI 360.

This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content are the responsibility of author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.