Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Unhacking the Reality of Russia's Troll Farms

Image Source: ritabrezkolin.

Recent posts on this blog have pointed to debates about how to verify memory, truth and reality. These are pressing questions. Mistaken arguments based on online information lead to outrageous conspiracy theories. These theories masquerade as products of verified data-gathering. Many people online are travelling further and further from truth, rationality and reality, while thinking they are doing exactly the opposite.  Can we map the philosophical distinctions and debates made between subjective perception and objective reality onto the distinctions between virtual reality and meatspace? How do we determine reality, based on evidence and experience from online communication and relationships? How do we write news and real-time history, and confirm events in reality, when all information, sources and historical authorities are suspect?

Image Source: Buzzfeed.

Later posts will seek to answer these questions. Today's post explores how dangerous continued confusion on these questions can be, starting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin's quest to rewrite post-Cold War history. One of the primary tools used in this regard is the establishment of so-called 'troll farms,' groups of social media actors employed by the Russian state to spread anti-American real- and faux-news that appears to come from domestic American man-on-the-street sources. This is an example of Stalinist disinformation techniques and the Russian state-media apparatus, targeting a rival national audience rather than its own.

Of course, in the Communications Revolution, everyone in governments, corporations, hackerspace and social media circles is gathering and playing with information. Today's focus on the Russian case does not deny the existence of trolls and hackers working for other powers and businesses. The point is to understand the dangers of Millennial propaganda - which is always cloaked in the pretense of its targets' commonly-held virtues - with this example. Trolls and troll farms can alter public opinion; worse: they can change their targets' perceptions of reality. They can change memory. They can change history. A great informational power struggle is taking place. The winners will define reality. On those foundations, anything can be built.

Vigilance in this regard means not just finding the evidence online which confirms the message with which you agree politically, or hearing the message you want to hear. It means hearing the message you do not want to hear, and considering it to be plausible. Unfortunately, healthy skepticism is now a breeding ground for anti-reality trolls, so caution is required on that front too. Algorithms on search engines now tailor our results based on earlier search histories, narrowing our worlds into smaller and smaller solipsistic bubbles, exposing us only to those with whom we easily agree. Rationalists believe that logically-aligned data provide solid conclusions to support their arguments. They do not, because all data are malleable. Hackers and whistleblowers supposedly topple evil authoritarian power structures by blowing them away with the cold, hard truth. Well, even if they do, does that mean that these actors are automatically 'good'? To what service do they put their revelations? And as with the links listed below about Russia troll farm whistleblowers, how can we be sure they are telling the truth?

The recent Pluto flyby revealed how instantaneous media have confused people about the real accomplishments of Big Science and space exploration. Some thought the flyby was faked, echoing the moon landing conspiracy theory and indicating a lack of confidence in information authorities and in photographs and videos as evidence. Some complained that there was no live feed from Pluto, showing zero understanding the immense distances involved and the related scientific challenges. The vast supply of online information on these subjects has provided no online education. Instead, it has provided a false sense of confidence about being 'right' in quasi-rationalized, self-righteous and communal ways.

Image Source: CStar.

The anniversary of the moon landing: 20 July 1969. Image Source: Flyby News.

Years ago, I read a scrap somewhere (perhaps this) that suggested that the moon landing hoax - the conspiracy theory that denies America's greatest achievement and also denies one of Russia's most humiliating losses in the competitive space race - was Russian-sourced. In the USA, the hoax has appealed across the political spectrum to libertarians and conservative populists, anarchists, and the wilder sort of anti-establishment liberal-leftists. The Americans are a revolutionary people, schooled from childhood in an anti-tyranny ideology that ignores non-American histories. They are overly sensitized to perceived abuses of governmental power and are always ready to combat those abuses. In the absence of a British imperial power, they see those abuses in the halls of their own government.

Now, even when those abuses are taking place, who better to understand and exploit the Americans' Millennial revolt against their own rĂ©gime than their current rivals? Who better to understand this predisposition than another revolutionary people? There is the Russian entanglement with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who have together discredited and destabilized the west, but especially America, with the best story of all: the plain truth. Does Russia's aspirant great power need to confront its own past humiliation, failures, and oppression of its own people? Not really. Spread a rumour. Play the long game. Build a workaround. Rewrite history until no one can remember what the history of the 20th century is or was, until the narratives are upside down, so that every American victory is perceived as defeat and vice versa. Nudge the endless American political debates away from consensuses and problem-solving and toward divisiveness and toxic blame-casting.

Exploit the American population's traditional revolutionary fear of oppression to foster popular distrust of the American government. Allow the Americans to pull their own state down, entranced by stupid conspiracy theories and the false dream that they are revolutionaries, saving their own country while they in fact ruin it. Stand back, look blameless and never lift a finger. Watch America's house of cards fall as Americans turn on their government, and destroy each other and themselves. It's clever, economical, and uses the reality of American failures with some artful bits of disinformation about American successes. History is being rewritten, one tweet at a time, and so are popular American perceptions of reality.

Relevant Links:
  • Encyclopedia Astronautica: "The Real Moon Landing Hoax"
  • Scientific American (16 July 2009): "The Moon Landing through Soviet Eyes"
  • AP (19 August 2009): "Russians Still Skeptical about US Moon Landing"
  • The Interpreter (14 November 2014): "The Kremlin's Growing Army of Internet Trolls"
  • NYT (2 June 2015): "The Agency"
  • Buzzfeed News (2 June 2015): "Documents Show How Russia's Troll Army Hit America"
  • news.com.au (4 June 2015): "Columbia Chemical Hoax Tracked to Troll Farm Dubbed the Internet Research Agency" 
  • The Interpreter (6 June 2015): "Here Comes the Kremlin's Troll Army"
  • Christian Post (10 June 2015): "Russian Troll Farm Spreads Fake News about United States"
  • Daily Mail (15 June 2015): "MI6 is forced to pull spies out of hostile countries after Russia and China decode a million encrypted files leaked by whistleblower"
  • Moscow Times (16 June 2015): "Russian Official Proposes International Investigation into U.S. Moon Landings"
  • Washington Post (17 June 2015): "Russian Official Wants to Investigate Whether U.S. Moon Landings Actually Happened"
  • Your News Wire (17 June 2015): "Russia Launch Investigation into U.S. Moon Landing 'Hoax'"
  • Independent (18 June 2015): "Russia Calls Investigation into Whether US Moon Landings Happened"
  • Politico (22 June 2015): "Putin's Plot to get Texas to Secede"
  • FAZ (16 July 2015): "Wer Steckt Hinter den NSA-Enthuellungen?" ["Who Hides behind the NSA Revelations?"]
  • Radio Free Europe (20 July 2015): "One Professional Russian Troll Tells All"
  • Radio Free Europe (20 July 2015): "The Trolls Who Came in from the Cold"

See my other posts related to Russia, here.

Your humble blogger has been accepted to Bread Loaf Sicily to prepare to publish my book of Millennial myths! Please support my ad-free blog and my attendance to complete that work. Even very small donations will help. I will send you a signed copy when the stories are published.

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