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16 November 2017updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

I’m beginning to believe there’s a Russian conspiracy to churn out online conspiracy theories

To internet hoaxers, making left-wingers argue with each other is good sport. But to state-sponsored trolls, it’s a front in their propaganda war. 

By Helen Lewis

Look, I’ll level with you. I’ve been known to argue with people on Twitter, and to talk about subjects – Hillary Clinton, gender politics, even (God help me) anti-Semitism – which all but guarantee a fusillade of angry replies.

Only, now I’m not sure who I’ve been arguing with all this time. During the latest storm in a Twittercup, lots of the accounts sending me angry messages had similar usernames. There were multiple references to punching Nazis, the ethics of which have become an internet flashpoint. (Briefly: a white nationalist in the US called Richard Spencer got filmed being hit in the face a few months ago; debates have since raged about whether it’s ever justified to combat racist rhetoric with violence.) Then someone popped up to decry my use of the phrase “biological female” as transphobic.

I mention this in the knowledge that, to anyone outside a small bubble, these debates seem madly arcane, like medieval bishops arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But they are nonetheless conducted with maximum energy, involving everything from accusations of condoning racism to encouraging suicide.

The American blogger Freddie de Boer once advanced a convincing theory about why internet debates get so intense. He pointed to the presence of “accelerants”: people who would jump into any discussion and jack up the anger levels. But because he was writing in the heady, innocent days of early 2015, he dismissed the idea that these accelerants were “plants, fakes, forces of establishment power who are deliberately undermining the left”. From the vantage point of late 2017, it’s hard to be so sure.

One of the people who casually abused me had a user name containing the word “diabeetus”. (If you know what that refers to, congratulations – and for God’s sake, go outside, you must be desperate for some vitamin D.) In 2012, the message board 4Chan hijacked a poll to name a new Mountain Dew flavour. The sugary soft drink’s new flavour, they suggested, should be “diabeetus”. (One of their other suggestions was “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong”.) In another 4Chan operation, users created fake profiles of black women and used them to attack “white feminists”. The idea was to turn activists against each other.   

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To internet hoaxers, making left-wingers argue with each other is good sport. But to state-sponsored trolls, it’s a front in their propaganda war. On 14 November, it was revealed that the @SouthLoneStar Twitter account, which tweeted a photo of a woman in a hijab “ignoring” a victim of the Westminster attack, was created in Russia. The image was picked up by Richard Spencer, who gave it  the caption “walk on by”. (The photographer involved later told the ABC network: “In the other picture in the sequence she looks truly distraught.”) The same @SouthLoneStar account had earlier tweeted during the EU referendum that it hoped Britain would leave the “European Caliphate”. If you wanted to destabilise the European Union, as it struggles to cope with a refugee crisis from Muslim-majority countries, whipping up Islamophobia is a pretty good way to do it.

Headlines tend to describe such accounts as “bots” (as in robots) but it’s just as likely they have human input. As far back as 2012, the New Statesman published an interview by Ai Wei Wei with a member of China’s “50 cent party”, a worker paid a token sum to disrupt and derail online discussions. When the oil price was about to rise, the worker posted comments such as “it serves you right if you’re too poor to drive”. Cue an almighty ruck over the offensive comments, and less attention on the oil price.

These tactics are so effective because they are essentially nihilistic. The goal is not to convince anyone of anything, but to trap them in pointless cycles of offence and outrage: Huis Clos with super-fast broadband. They are also profoundly destabilising to online networks, tipping them into factionalism (not something the left needs much help with, anyway). Conspiracy theories fuel the existing anti-politics sentiment. Perhaps the government is lying to you, perhaps there is a shadowy cabal running the world. Everything is more interesting if it’s sold as a secret. After all, despite being the biggest story of the last US election, Hillary Clinton’s emails were mostly extremely dull. If she’d published them herself, no one would have waded through them.

Strangely, I have found the Russian news quite cheering. First, I like the idea that calling me a bitch regularly for the past few years has created much-needed job opportunities in St Petersburg, where many Russian “troll farms” are based. (I’m going to start tweeting back “Hello Sergei” to any particularly implausible accounts.) Knowing the person shouting at you might have slotted you in between posting theories about how Julian Assange was framed by a CIA honeytrap takes some of the sting out of online abuse.

Second, it feels as though we’re beginning to see the extent of the problem – or at least fumble in the dark for its outer edges. Until now, the companies involved have been extremely reluctant to concede there might be anything amiss, but a US Congress investigation and dogged journalism is, clearly, changing that – as well as bringing us unimprovable nuggets such as Assange’s suggestion that the Trump campaign endorse him as Australian ambassador to Washington.

Still, in a world riddled with conspiracy theories, what a great cosmic joke it would be if Russian propagandists have overseen a massive conspiracy. (Even typing that makes me think the reality will be less dramatic, if still alarming.)

Nonetheless, we could all stand to learn a lesson: don’t bother arguing on the internet. Whether it’s a bloke called Steve in St Albans, or Sergei in St Petersburg, either way it’s a colossal waste of time. 

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit