State-sponsored trolling worse than fake news: report

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IFTF report

State-sponsored trolling, or digital harassment of critics, are worse than fake news, says a report by the human rights lawyer Carly Nyst and Oxford University researcher Nick Monaco.

This has implications and relevance to the situation in Singapore, as we shall see later.

“We define this phenomenon as the use by states of targeted online hate and harassment campaigns to intimidate and silence individuals critical of the state,” the report said. “There is evidence that governments around the world, leveraging the surveillance and hacking possibilities afforded by a new era of pervasive technology, are using new digital tactics to persecute perceived opponents at scale.”

It identified several commonalities in such state-sponsored trolling, “especially in the strategies and tactics used to carry out attacks”.

The report explains:

“These include but are not limited to making death and rape threats, using bots and automated agents to amplify vitriolic attacks at scale, making accusations of treason or collusion with foreign intelligence agencies, using “black” public relations firms to disseminate hyperpartisan or libelous disinformation about targets, spreading doctored images and memes, unlawfully using spyware and hacking to gather actionable intelligence against targets, and sowing acrimonious sexism. The goal of these attacks is the intimidation and silencing of targeted individuals—most often journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and vocal members of opposition coalitions.”

In short, state-sponsored operatives with fake social media accounts, and thousands of bots,  are used to amplify the attack on the individual target, namely critics of the governing regimes.

The report, commissioned by the California-based Institute for The Future (IFTF), found for example, that female targets, such as the Turkish journalist Ceyda Karan and her Filipina colleague Maria Ressa, are routinely threatened with rape.

“The general idea behind the campaigns is to give the target the impression of swelling public indignation about his or her work and views, but also to drown out the target’s voice with the howling of thousands of digital voices,” Bloomberg reports.

Such coordinated attacks make it hard for the target, or victim, to get his or her message across, or to put out a coherent defence.

“And sometimes attacks have real-world consequences, as when trolls get hold of the target’s personal information,” says Bloomberg. “That is what happened to the Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, who tried to investigate Russian troll factories and was subjected to online and then offline abuse.”

The IFTF report said there are 3 methods adopted by states for such campaigns.

  1. State-executed
  2. State-directed or state-coordinated
  3. State-incited or state-fuelled
  4. State-leveraged or state-endorsed

The third it said is perhaps the most pernicious, where “government maintains an arm’s-length distance from the attack but nevertheless both instigates and profits from it.”

“Governments use high-profile proxies and other government stand-ins to signal state support for a particular attack, having long ago planted the seed in the minds of citizens that trolling is a method supported, or at least not opposed, by the government.”

Such situations have also been seen in Singapore, where government critics were subjected to abuse and threats by anonymous social media accounts apparently supportive of the ruling party or government.

One such person is freelance journalist, Kirsten Han, an outspoken commentator and activist on issues such as freedom of the media, human rights, and the death penalty.

Ms Han, who writes for both local and international news outlets, and runs the website New Naratif as its editor, has been subjected to some of the harassment which the IFTF report mentioned.

And such abuse have been going on for several years, such as in 2016 when Ms Han published a blog post about it, titled: “Putting me in my place: sexism, misogyny and trolls.”

I don’t mind it when people disagree with me, but it often doesn’t stop there,” she wrote. “Instead, there is a need to ‘put me in my place’ by being condescending or patronising, to suggest that I am simply too naïve or simple-minded to understand what I’m talking about, presumably because I am young and female.”

Ms Han revealed that she too had been the target of sexual threats, including rape, violence and objectification.

Online social media groups such as the Fabrications About The PAP Facebook page, seen as rabid pro-government/ruling party defenders, are suspected to be behind some of these attacks, although no concrete evidence have surfaced so far.

There is also the suspected “Internet brigade” of the PAP, which first came to light in a newspaper report in 2007 – an anonymous group affiliated to the government who would go round rebutting critics. That group is believed to have now transformed into trolls, accused of astroturfing, deliberate disinformation and personal attacks.

Government ministers, who are quick to slam its critics for less than desirable behaviour, have kept silent on such trollings and online harassment carried out by its purported supporters. This has led to suspicions that the state is tacitly supporting such actions.

A Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods held public hearings in March on the issue, and is expected to make recommendations to the government later this year.

At a public forum in June to discuss the phenomenon of fake news, Hong Kong Baptist University media professor Cherian George said any new laws the government may be contemplating to deal with online falsehoods should also apply to the government itself.

“Any serious discussion about disinformation must put front and centre the concerns about the state itself as a source of disinformation,” he said. “It should be incumbent on the press, citizens and MPs to scrutinise any legislation with extreme care because of the possibility that any such law will essentially be used against opponents of the state.”

One of the suggestions by the IFTF report on how to deal with state-sponsored attacks and harassment campaigns is for social network companies to find out what tools those targeted for attacks need to fight back.

Read the full IFTF report here.