15.12.16

Poisoned Fruit in the Walled Garden - Part II

In the second in a series of posts about the impact of far-right wing trolling on the internet, find out what government operations from both the east and west have in common with the trolls of the alt-right. (Read Part I here)

The alt-right might be in the spotlight now, but its own activities are often overshadowed by the works of other trolls which are on a mission to promote slightly less offensive, conservative views: those of the military and the government.



Nearly everyone these days is familiar with the trolls working for China's 50-cent party, or the denizens of “Putin’s troll factories”. Typically, these trolls pose as Americans or Europeans and try to pack as much disinformation as they can into each rushed comment that they knock out.  They write transparent adulations to those in power in broken, Google-translated English. Their bugbears are the American Democrats; democracy in general; anyone who criticizes Russia or China; the EU; homosexuality (which is criminalized to some extent in both countries).
                                  
The reasons why the governments of Russia and China might have seen fit to mobilize their own sock puppet mobs to tow the party line might seem obvious: the old establishments there would have found it too difficult to cling to their accustomed, totalitarian level of control over popular opinions, in the face of new freedoms and technology.  Few of their dogmatic distortions would have stood a chance online, where millions can find the truth (or at the very least, an opposing view) at the click of a mouse.

But what, then, does this say about the U.S. military when the authors of its narrative choose to employ the same methods as those used by China and Russia, to counter criticism from so-called 'extremists' - particularly when it might be that those 'extremists' are just people with a really good argument?

In 2011, the Central Command of the U.S. military was revealed to have secured a deal with Florida-based cyber security firm NTRepid, to buy up persona management software. This software would allow each service man or woman to own up to 10 sock puppet identities, for use worldwide. Once the impending deal was exposed, the U.S. military was quick to state that none of the personas would work in English or on American soil, but those are the only solid details that have ever been given regarding the program. Centcom’s own insistence that it conducts its online deceptions in a way that ensures ‘maximum deniability’ - namely, by avoiding detection - doesn’t reassure, especially since its closest analogues within the US and the UK have been caught ransacking all of the barriers between the personal and the public; the domestic and the international, in pursuit of similarly-hazy, ‘anti extremist’ aims.  
                                  

Above: a slide from the GHCQ powerpoint presentation that was entered into evidence during Berlin hearings into the role of the German Bundesnachrichtdienst (secret service) in enabling NSA mass surveillance.

The presentation
illustrates how government operations envision themselves infiltrating major social media sites - Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube - using tactics that are nearly identical to those employed by the alt-right. 


The 'Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group' (a department of UK signals agency, the Government Communication Headquarter) has honed an online propaganda program which is being used by America, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, whose spy agencies work together in an alliance known as the "5 Eyes". Although JTRIG is shrouded in secrecy (British MPs say they have no idea what it’s up to), most leaks to date have suggested that it focuses on non-criminal ‘targets’ such as Anonymous, to change their ‘extremist’ views. It is, bluntly speaking, a propaganda machine for conservatism.

In leaked material, JTRIG has admitted that its activities include monitoring ‘domestic extremist groups such as the English Defence League’ and ‘denying, deterring or dissuading hacktivists’. So, its targets are those which might one day pose a threat but haven't yet done anything wrong, nor even planned to.

It should also be remembered that intelligence agencies in both the UK and the US have often been wont to label anti-nuclear activists, animal rights activists, anarchists, anti-globalization activists, ecological activists and even whistleblowers as ‘terrorists’ for their use of “harassment, intimidation and coercion”, and "economic pressure" tactics - which essentially means 'boycotts'.  While these tactics may be considered slightly aggressive by some, they are a far cry from actual, suitcase-go-kaboom terrorism.

A picture slowly forms of a Western intelligence which views anyone who upsets the status quo (or its profit margins) as a physical threat, regardless of the moral questions that are raised by upholding that status quo and those profit margins and regardless of the physical threat which the status quo may pose to society. Additionally, it lumps in activists who idealize causing damage (like jihadis or the neo-nazi far right) alongside activists who idealize peaceful aims,
yet whom eventually resort to some form of non-violent sabotage to achieve them. It’s pretty critical to make a distinction between the two kinds of activists, though, unless one aspires to a nihilistic, materialist society which is wholly devoid of any deeper moral drives or ideals.



Above: a screenshot showing a moment when a Reddit user was caught out using an automated template to post dismissive comments to one of the site’s political subs
 
The JTRIG mission has perhaps been best summarized by the Intercept, which wrote: “Several GCHQ memos published last fall by the Guardian revealed that the agency was eager to keep its activists secret not to protect national security but because, ‘our main concern is that reference to agency practices […] could lead to damaging public debate which might lead to legal challenges against the current regime.

An interesting implication contained in the above statement is that the 5 Eyes alliance which essentially created JTRIG speaks as a single regime - one which coordinates its actions in order to answer needs and desires that are above and beyond the needs and desires of its component nations, or their people. In short, this statement seems to confirm the existence of a superstate whose sovereignty transcends the interests of the member nations... at least in the (five) eyes of the beholder, it does.
 
Perhaps none of this will stand out to internet users as much as some of the juicier controversies that explode out of the social media spheres each week or month, but perhaps that in itself, is what should give them pause.  These official trolls represent oh-so subtle, understated efforts to blend the ‘regime’ message with the messages sent by friends, family and peers, manufacturing the appearance of an agreement among them, where none exists.
In the process, the government's trolls have succeeded in almost validating the garish antics of the alt-right that are grabbing stage centre, at the moment. In their attempts to drum up support for their respective regimes, these trolls are inadvertently propping up the neo-fascist trolls that claim to speak for the silent, right wing masses. 

But can the agendas of these groups even be so different when they agree on the methods, if not the madness that drives them?
 

‘The guarded-aggressive, totalitarian ideology put forth by these people is their main indicator. A few members of this group try to look even somewhat liberal.'

'They introduce arbitrary tracts full of facts and events — often completely fraudulent — that force their opponents to do extensive research to refute them.'


‘It is an absolute orgy of animal hatred...'


'These remarks have been word-for-word identical [...] putting forward exactly the same “arguments”, accusations and insults, using exactly the same phrasing and sentence constructions.'


'One gets the feeling that they are being written by exactly the same people with the same impoverished imagination and vocabulary.'



The above quotes may sound like they are descriptions of tactics that are currently used by the alt-right, but they’re not: they’re taken from a 2007 expose entitled "Commissars of the Internet" which was published on La Russophobe, a dissident blog out of Russia. Its authors worked on the major independent publication, Novaya Gazeta. The series described how many of these writers were harangued and gang-stalked across the online world by feral trolls which showed all the hallmarks of being in the pay of the Kremlin. 

Unlike the alt-right, though, the people trolling the Russian blogosphere were speaking for those at the top of their country’s hierarchy: people who were capable of hiring hit men to silence journalists, and of
shutting down websites at will, with a multi-million-ruble budget on hand from which to pay operatives who would drown out dissent with astroturfing campaigns. Even so, a single voice of opposition was obviously too much for them to bear - nothing but total conformity would do.  It never does, with totalitarians.

One of the journalists whom the authors described as being continually harassed by the Russian brigadniki, acclaimed humanitarian activist and journalist
Anna Politkovskaya, was even assassinated in 2006 - and on Putin's birthday, no less.



“[It] is we who are responsible for Putin's policies ... [s]ociety has shown limitless apathy ... we have let them see our fear, and thereby have only intensified their urge to treat us like cattle. The KGB respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.  From 'Putin's Russia' by Anna Politkovskaya

Totalitarians don't just stop at killing off the local opposition, though; even when dissenters give up the fight and leave Russia for good, officials will still go to great lengths to 'correct' their views in RL (real life). Another famous example of how online trolling can have fallout in RL is that of writer
Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, after accusing Vladimir Putin of having ordered the death of his fellow journalist, Politkovskaya (somewhat understandable, given the circumstances).

An author on the alt-right website Daily Stormer could well have been voicing the mantra embraced by the Kremlin when he wrote: "This is about survival. We must win by any means necessary, or we will cease to exist". It's the sort of false equivalency that leads true extremists to kill people for their ideas alone. But the beliefs that the Kremlin, the alt-right, and even the NSA are fighting for the survival of seem to be beliefs that are undergoing a natural extinction. They are ideas whose death would make way for some sort of evolution or rebirth in society's consensus.  Do beliefs in mind numbing uniformity, torture, war, prejudice, cruelty and sectarian hate actually ever need rescuing from the brink? 


The alt-right is just one in a long line of astroturfing movements that is being led by a once-privileged group which is facing an online consensus that limits its former
scope of power. And the only way to regain that power, it seems, is to reduce the rest of the world to a droning singularity of voice, identity, thought. 

That is the only way that any despotic regime ever manages to survive.
                                               

Translation of BND-NSA inquiry question (left, above)

Not far from our hearing hall here was the Berlin Wall, which enclosed GDR citizens. We had various deaths - 136 at the inner-German frontier, 872 fatalities which in particular were caused by the Stasi. Against this historical context, I am wondering how you can compare the NSA and that state security?

Answer in English (left, below): "Yes, they've learned the lessons of that surveillance state [the Stasi]". 





“Drowning in information” is the tagline of the latest release of NSA documents that were compiled by Edward Snowden. The sensory overload experienced by spy agencies as they attempt to sift through every thought and image we produce tends to overspill on to us, too. When it comes to leaks about spying on ordinary citizens, those citizens are also drowning in information which they don’t know how to process, to interpret.

The modern internet may be filthy with leaks, but sites which interpret the content of the leaks and share their conclusions are still too thin on the ground and their conclusions are often too limited. Taken together, these sites tend to form a well-intentioned echo chamber that can seem as dislocated from day-to-day online experience as the government itself. But that's an illusion: the Western government's troll operations are just as geared towards engineering a whole new consensus down on the ground as anything done by the 'populist' alt-right.  In this new consensus, opinions exist not to reveal anything, but merely to further the goals of entrenched power.   


In the next post in this series, we will see how corporate culture was instrumental in implanting those goals in the online world, in the first place.  



Like this piece? Check out 'Populism by Unpopular Demand on Fleeting Reams



© A. E. Elliott 2016

This series of articles are taken from an upcoming book by the author. Any attempt to republish or re-use this work without accreditation and/or the author's consent will constitute a breach of copyright.

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Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, streetart, left-wing activism, social media trends and green issues. Other publications that I have written for include: Urban Challenger Blog, Siegesaeule, Shlur, Alternative Berlin, Sensanostra.