Apr 13, 2021 - Technology

The global business of professional trolling

Illustration of a series of angry emojis emerging from one another's yelling mouth

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Professional political trolling is still a thriving underground industry around the world, despite crackdowns from the biggest tech firms.

Why it matters: Coordinated online disinformation efforts offer governments and political actors a fast, cheap way to get under rivals' skin. They also offer a paycheck to people who are eager for work, typically in developing countries.

  • "It's a more sophisticated means of disinformation to weaken your advisories," said Todd Carroll, CISO and VP of Cyber Operations at CybelAngel.

Driving the news: Facebook last week said it had uncovered a massive troll farm in Albania, linked to an Iranian militant group.

  • The operation had the the hallmarks of a typical troll farm, which Facebook defines as "a physical location where a collective of operators share computers and phones to jointly manage a pool of fake accounts as part of an influence operation."
  • "The main thing we saw was strange signals centralized coordination between different fake accounts," said Ben Nimmo, Facebook's global influence operations threat intelligence lead.
  • Like numerous troll farms uncovered over the past few years, there was one easy giveaway: content from the network targeted Iran, but was posted on social media during normal working hours on Central European Time.

Be smart: The best way to slow down professional trolls is to make it more expensive for them to carry out disinformation campaigns, says Jean le Roux, a researcher at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

  • Digital Africa Research Lab and Buzzfeed News, uncovered a large troll operation in Nigeria last week, in which a Nigerian PR firm and a UK-based nonprofit paid social media influencers in Nigeria to tweet support for a Columbian businessman accused of money laundering in the US.
  • The operation aimed to recruit influencers, primarily in Nigeria, to tweet in support of the businessman, Alex Saab, twice per week initially for one month earlier this year, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
  • Twitter last week suspended more than 1,500 accounts for manipulating the #FreeAlexSaab hashtag, per the report, but told Buzzfeed News it hasn't yet determined whether this was a state-backed campaign.

The big picture: Professional troll farms tend to share key attributes, which help to tip tech platforms and researchers off.

  • Shared physical location: Troll farms are often propped up by a party that will pay for high-speed internet and computers that together power the network. It's easier to finance and monitor operations that physically sit close together.
  • Posting during working hours: As was the case in the Albanian operation, content from troll farms tend to be posted during work hours, with breaks for lunch and during the evening.
  • Hyper-targeted messaging: Posts from troll farms tend to zero in on a certain political message. Most ordinary people post about an array of topics, le Roux notes.

What to watch: Troll farms can create a symbiotic relationship between political actors eager to manipulate adversaries and developing nations eager for cash.

  • CNN, in conjunction with Clemson University, last year uncovered a major troll operation in Ghana being used to sow division among Americans ahead of the 2020 election. The operation was linked back to the Russian state-backed troll operation called the Internet Research Agency.
  • Carroll, a 20-year veteran with the FBI, said that in his time investing troll operations, he saw many from places like Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia — "places where there's a lot of cheap labor and little oversight."

"We're also seeing a lot more (troll operations) being picked up in Africa," le Roux says, which is what has in-part inspired the DFRLab to open an office in the region, where le Roux is based.

  • "More people in Africa are going online, on social," he says. "At same time, Africa is one of poorer continents, which creates an easy recipe for someone like Russia to step in and pay someone to sit behind a computer all day."
  • Often, bad actors will go to lengths to set up "cut-outs" or systems to pay trollers without having to go through a bank, or a system that would get them noticed. Usually, money is distributed via a third-party on the ground.

Bottom line: Trolling requires few technical skills, Carroll notes, and it pays. "Any emerging economies susceptible something like that," le Roux says.

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