Last week, the Guardian ran an article about “Russia’s Troll Army”. “Troll” is something of a misnomer here: the people in question are not out to provoke a reaction. Rather they are paid to promote the government’s line on political and social issue. They maintain blogs and social media profiles under pseudonyms, where they post made up incidents from fabricated lives, interspersed with political posts they are instructed to write, lauding Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine (for example). And of course they post comments on news stories, on Russian and foreign websites (for reasons unknown, they don’t seem to target Practical Ethics).
The ‘troll army’ is a new version of a propaganda battle which is (at least) decades old. In an article on CIA funding of student organisations and European cultural initiatives, Louis Menand notes that the revelation of where the funds were coming from alienated the very people the CIA was trying to court. The discovery that funding is conditional on saying the right things is repugnant. The discovery that the comments we read are funded by governments is likely to be even more upsetting. The discovery that an online ‘friend’ is a fiction crafted for spreading disinformation is likely to be especially disturbing.
But are there grounds for caring whether comment is paid for? After all, the ‘trolls’ are not saying anything that those who read them won’t hear from other sources. So why care whether they are paid to say what they do?
Louis Menand suggests that the CIA funding affected who was in a position to say what, but no one was induced to say anything they didn’t believe.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.