Opinion: Putin the troll

Troll warning
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Let’s talk about today’s political trolls. Although it’s tempting to discuss current Kremlin policy in terms of the banal analogies of good and evil of the Lord of the Rings fantasy, let’s turn attention to other trolls, inhabitants of the virtual internet chat world and the ways and means of their doings. Much has been written and investigated on how the Kremlin musters up its army of internet trolls to achieve its political goals. One of the latest investigations unveiled a “troll factory” in Saint Petersburg camouflaging as “internet research”. Yet a lot of really interesting and valuable journalistic investigation on the politically biased manifestation of internet trolling in Russia takes too limited a look at this phenomenon. It’s the intriguing and picturesque internet-based elements that become more important than the more general political context.

It’s well-worth taking a broader look at the phenomenon of political trolling. The chief troll in Russia is Vladimir Putin, not the teenagers trying to earn extra cash in the “troll factories” for the glamour of that same Western pop culture that they so malign during night shifts in some “internet research” office. It was Putin who elevated internet trolling to the level of political strategy and who turned it into a political modus operandi of the Kremlin as well as routine political rhetoric. What then are the main techniques of internet trolling that can be observed in the Kremlin’s policy?

First, the internet troll uses the trust of virtual chat. It registers and intervenes therein, a disguised contrived identity. From the start it is unobserved and only observes its environs. It then kindles its fable, looks for the like-minded and then after choosing the right moment reverberates and turns all attention to itself or to its agenda. This technique has long been the hallmark of the Kremlin’s information policy in Europe.

The arrival of Russian state television on the European media market was a way of sourcing middlemen. Russian channels were then registered and licenses grated in Latvia, Great Britain or Sweden. In this way Europe has become the newscaster of Kremlin-controlled television and one which has a free hand throughout the European media market. Incidentally, Gazprom had already some time before implemented the same strategy of middleman and infiltration in the local market.

Second, after waiting for the right moment, the internet troll starts causing a ruckus in the virtual space and in this way ruins any rational discussion based on fact and elementary logic. Russia’s aggression in Crimea had already begun when Putin met with the international press. From the start he stated that there were no troops on the Crimean peninsula but that weapons could be made available (if need be). Later on, while celebrating the occupation of Crimea, that vary same president in front of those very same cameras unashamedly thanked the “non-existent” troops for the operation that had been carried out, awarded them medals and the Alexandrov army choir, after it had composed and performed a hymn dedicated to them, was offered a tour of Europe. The soldiers are still “polite people” in a war that didn’t happen. And Putin skillfully trolled political reality.

Then there’s the so-called “off topic” technique that’s frequently used by the internet troll, and which means going completely off the point or introducing masses of additional information. The latest example of this Kremlin method is the reaction to the investigation of the downed Malaysia Airlines plane. Versions of an apparent attack by a Ukrainian military aircraft, mock dead bodies of the MH17 sprouted mushroomed on Kremlin television. The same time as Dutch investigators announced their results, Almaz-Antei, a Russian military concern also “unexpectedly” organised something “off-topic”, that being a ostentatious public event in which it presented its own investigation. Nevertheless, “trolling and diverting attention” is a reality that hardly surprises us. Edward Lucas calls it ‘whataboutism’, something which has been inherent in the Kremlin both during the Cold War as it is now.

Internet trolls revel in emotions. They provoke and insult. They need audience confrontation simply to attract attention to themselves – and isn’t that a reflection of the Kremlin’s current regional information policy? The Kremlin openly derides European values and uses our pluralistic information space to aggravate the issue of Russian-speakers. It publicly makes statements about its so-called “conservative agenda” in which there is no place for LGBT rights. This confrontational “divide and rule” method of the Kremlin helps in finding unexpected allies amongst the European radical political spectrum on both the right and the left.

This new International is imparted by way of negative emotions and is easily coordinated. The Kremlin even managed to use some of them as observers in the farce that was the Crimean referendum. However, emotions aroused by the Kremlin’s “trolling” is no longer just a peripheral political problem. We see in the public space (more often now than before) some uncriticised and expounded thesis of mistrust on the part of Russian-speakers, our fellow-citizens. And it’s the Kremlin that is seeking emotions and fears like these and which is that same “food of the tolls” (remember the main axiom about them – don’t feed the trolls!)

How then do you fight the Kremlin’s political “trolling”? A good example of how was shown in 2006 by one of the founders of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales. By 2006 Wikipedia had expanded to the extent that it represented a certain value – the world of virtual news, one which namely in that year internet vandals and trolls started to vigorously destroy. With a growing frequency they would change all or part of the content of articles. This ruined the trust of a long and unfailingly esteemed project. At a conference marking the anniversary of Wikipedia in 2006, Jimmy Wales asked the Wikipedia community to fight against vandals and trolls like these and expose them for the schemers they were, and to eliminate them from further participation in the creation of Wikipedia.

An initiative like this is imperative in order to fight Kremlin trolling which destroys our political reality, agreements, conventions and trust. Nevertheless, if a fight like this is directed singly at the virtual space and at a fight against the trolls in Russia’s “troll factories”, in Facebook or in comments in internet news portals, then it’s doomed to failure because fighting Putin’s main political trolls of today requires political will, leadership and creativity. What’s required is not only the help of internet elves like the Ukrainian www.stopfake.org which fights and exposes connivers in the internet. Most importantly what are needed are elves of diplomacy as well as geopolitical elves who will enter into a fight with the main troll – Putin – and secure our faith in today’s political and world confidence.

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