July 8, 2020

Bullies, Bots, and Trolls, Oh My!

Guest Column
By Amy Kerr Hardin | Feb. 9, 2019

In this turbulent political climate, internet harassment is clearly on the rise, largely due to a president who can’t make it through his first BK Whopper of the day without trolling anyone who disagrees with his half-baked public policy schemes. On Trump’s lead, online bullying of women, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals is now considered acceptable among his cult.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the posterchild quarry for angry white males with internet access and wee little hands. She is also a fine example of how to handle those whiny bitches. Anyone who’s been on social media since 2016 knows exactly who these guys are and the types of memes they post. When she was disparaged for a video of her dancing in college, her rejoinder was perfect: “It is not normal for elected officials to have a reputation for dancing well, and I’m happy to be one.”
Remember, AOC is not the target; it’s you, the viewer, especially if you’re of the female persuasion. There are those who don’t want us to have a voice. They wish to gaslight us into silence on social media.
Several years ago, I penned a commentary questioning the wisdom of arming school teachers. My opinion garnered an anonymous death threat from a man who desired to see me raped and killed while he watched in pleasure. My intrepid web host searched the sender’s internet provider address (he left a cyber trail), and found the threat was generated from deep in the heart of Michigan Militia territory. At that time, there was a federal statute that specifically prohibited that form of online harassment. I should have enjoyed protection under the law, but no enforcement agency would touch it. Since then, internet bullying has escalated, while the rules prohibiting it have been gutted.
Typically, male-on-female bullying is subtler. The most common remark issued from the unclever mansplainers is “put on your big girl pants.” I get that one whenever a male bully is unable to cogently articulate an opposing position on the topic at hand.
Journalist and target Ginger Gorman set out to profile the average troll. What she found was surprising and deeply disturbing. Trolls are not basement-dwelling troglodytes. Neither are they always politically motivated, but the political arena is a target-rich environment for them. They actually work in organized online groups — gangs, really — and they share their favorite targets with friends, so they can commit the equivalent to cyber gang rape. It’s fun for them. Surprise — the typical troll is a white male.
Bots too, are on the ascendance. Bots are robotic social media accounts designed to influence the opinions of real people. Russia in particular is increasingly weaponizing social media to attack both sides of the political spectrum. In 2016, Russian-created bots worked to divide Democrats to dilute their vote, and they likely succeeded. They didn’t spare Republicans either; bots aimed to nudge them well into crazytown by circulating outlandish conspiracy theories. Around 20 to 25 percent of Trump supporters are particularly vulnerable to this tactic. These falsehoods are then amplified by far-right websites, Fox News, and the president himself, via Twitter.
Bot-spotting skills should be a prerequisite for social media usage, yet those most prone to targeting are also the least likely to educate themselves.
Watch for Twitter and Facebook accounts with more posts than humanly possible. Another red flag: profile pics that are too good looking. (They may resemble stock photos, ’cause they are.) During the 2016 election cycle, I received a steady stream of Facebook friend requests from square-jawed men wearing heavily decorated military uniforms. The bot producers must have flagged me as ultra-patriotic because, in my writing I frequently visit the subject of protecting the democratic process; naturally, a man in uniform was going to make me swoon with nationalistic fervor.
Large gaps in social media posting is another clue that the account is computer-generated. Propogandists only fire-up the bot machine when they wish to create a sphere of influence, primarily around elections, but also in an attempt to put a finger on the scale during public policy debates, as with immigration and the border wall.
Bots additionally employ the vernacular and commonly used vulgarities of the sub-group they’re attempting to infiltrate and influence. Key phrases are the truck they use to move the mindset, and it only takes a few individuals to spread the pathogen. Bots are currently using this ploy against Kamala Harris among black Twitter followers. They are attempting to discredit her candidacy by implying she is “not black enough.”
Mother Jones magazine compiled a checklist of bot-spotting tips:
* Use of multiple languages
* Use of URL shorteners
* Suspicious images
* Hyperactivity
* Unlikely popularity
The latter point, excessive popularity, brings to mind the fact that, according to TwitterAudit, Donald Trump himself has a large number of fake Twitter followers. As of January, he had over 6.8 million counterfeit followers on the platform, either purchased by himself through a service or provided by Russian bots.
There is a temptation to walk away from social media altogether. But that’s exactly what the bots, bullies, and trolls want us to do. That way they win. A New York University and Stanford study found that those who shunned social media gained a small amount of happiness, but they became measurably less informed about factual news. Think of it this way, would you give up your cell phone just because of obnoxious robocalls? So, why abandon social media?

Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, a regionally known artist, and a public-policy wonk and political essayist at www.democracy-tree.com.


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