Quarantine Journals: Thinking About Trolls

Who has a troll farm? I’m not pointing fingers. But the global consensus seems to be that they do exist, and they’re making significant waves politically in a world that’s becoming increasingly dependent on the internet. It’s only a matter of time before the concept enters our lexicon. The troll farms have come, and it looks like they’re here to stay. In fact, a 2019 report by the Los Angeles Times even called it a “growth industry” in the Philippines. Yikes.

Troll farms use a very simple business model, but that model’s effectivity speaks for itself. In classic internet parlance, a troll can be any internet user who deliberately posts or comments content meant to disrupt any sensible discourse online. But, in the words of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the 2008 blockbuster, The Dark Knight, you never do something you’re good at for free. It’s a free market after all. Troll farms employ an entire payroll of internet users, and the job description is just that: post, post, and post. Now the trolls’ activities have taken on a wider spectrum than just angering random netizens. On an interview with GMA News, the leader of one such troll army claims their services can cover boosting, defending, and fortifying a paying client’s online reputation.

And it appears to be quite a lucrative business. The same report claims that an internet troll can earn anywhere from P30,000 to P70,000 monthly. Compare that with the average monthly earnings of a registered nurse (to wit: licensed and with a degree) of just P13,500, or that of a general practitioner (after medical school) of P20,000 to P35,000. One can’t help wonder why we don’t all just become trolls.

A troll’s everyday duties sound simple enough: one has to keep track of as much as 200 social media accounts (you’ll know them from the fact that their accounts tend to be recently created, with little in the way of actual socializing going on, usually with few to no friends or followers), each with its own personality types, and, shifting between these many personalities, one posts and comments according to a prescribed “script” crafted by a content editor. It’s like the online version of a flash mob, only less entertaining and with upped potentials of becoming destructive.

All that a troll can leave as legacy is a roll of accounts with names that are not their own, bearing opinions someone else wrote.

Technically speaking, being a troll isn’t illegal. The relative novelty of social media versus, say, our constitutions means everything concerning online activity is pretty much a legal grey area. What trolls are doing is basically propagating a whole lot of noise, but that plus the algorithms employed by all major social media platforms means that noise eventually influences what many people read and learn from their feeds.

Consider a politician whose latest misdeed has just reached the internet. When a number of informed users begin to share and post dissenting opinions from their profiles, all that trolls have to do is outnumber them with negating sentiments. Now a user who has, up to that point, engaged with mostly approving content towards that politician, by design of social media algorithms, will now mostly see what the trolls have to say. Generate enough noise and people never have to read any real news bits. This is why critical users continue read and engage with equally critical content, and can only react with frustration when they come across someone who continues to be unmoved seemingly against common sense. They aren’t being illogical or unreasonable – they’re only seeing trolls.

Being a troll is a job – yet another in an alarmingly increasing set of desperate attempts to stave off hunger produced and later manipulated by the system.

Trolls can attack the other way as well. Rather than protecting a client, they can also sling mud on the client’s opponents by flooding the platform with fake articles and quotes that specifically aim at tarnishing the opponent’s reputation. Generate enough noise again, and the posts may enter the trending sections. Any actual news articles concerning that personality will now be inundated under a barrage of troll posts. It’s a business that’s impressive in its simplicity if only it weren’t so dangerous.

In this time of crisis, it’s understandable that people are hating on trolls. After all, they proliferate misinformation at a time when being informed on up-to-date and transparent data can mean life or death for countless innocent civilians. But in the Philippines, where years of expensive education still takes you nowhere better than an anonymous couch potato with a stable internet connection and a broken moral compass, one must also remember that trolls did not emerge from the void.

After all, who wants to be a troll? Whoever came up to his parents or to his teachers during career day and said, “I dream to one day spread lies and hate to the world!” Being a troll may be financially rewarding, but it is ultimately unenriching as a vocation. Doctors save lives. Artists enrich and inform. Garbage collectors, street sweepers, although often belittled by their middle-class brethren, make life livable for an entire community. All that a troll can leave as legacy is a roll of accounts with names that are not their own, bearing opinions someone else wrote.

Behind every fake account is a human being who must attend to life’s basic needs, and it is these same needs that governments continue to be incapable of providing. Being a troll is a job – yet another in an alarmingly increasing set of desperate attempts to stave off hunger produced and later manipulated by the system. Though this is in no way absolving technology companies from their ethical misfires. By producing the very platforms that have rapidly taken over how we learn, how we inform, and how we entertain, they must shoulder the accountability of ensuring their usage never impinges on our human rights – but all that is ultimately beyond the control of mere individuals. From our end, we must turn our anger towards this system instead. In the grand scheme of things, we are all victims in a system where power and capital dictate our value.

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