Jeanna Matthews is a Computer Science professor at Clarkson University, she explains how different intelligence agencies and hacker groups use fake accounts on social media to control what type of content people see and believe and collect other countries’ stance and information on various issues.
The key to understanding how fake accounts influence the content that will be shown or will receive the most exposure is understanding the algorithms that social networks use to decide which posts will be recommenced on users’ feed.
A post is shown to a few users and the response that is shown will determine if the post is highlighted to more users or suppressed. Unfortunately, posts that depict extreme content or lies gain more directions and are circulated rapidly. Manipulators take advantage of this algorithm and use an “army” of accounts that are not correlated with real, existent people called ‘bots’. These bots react positively to the posts that these agencies or groups want to be circulated. According to researchers, nearly half of the Twitter accounts discussing the COVID-19 pandemic are bots.
The second way content is propagated is by use of “sock puppets”. As the name suggests, “sock puppets” are fake accounts that are controlled by a hidden entity using the face and name of a non-existent person.
An example of a sock puppet was “Jenna Abrams”, this account had 70K followers and was mentioned by popular media outlets for its xenophobic and far-right opinions, was exposed to be an invention of the Internet Research Agency.
The important aspect to understand in this is that trolls are not concerned with the issues as much as they are with creating division, mistrust, and confusion. Research in 2018 concluded that some of the most influential accounts on sides of divisive issues, like Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, were controlled by troll farms.
People are most influenced when they see a huge number of positive votes (aka social proof) on any type of content. When people see millions of likes and comments on a post about a societal issue, they start to agree with it without giving it a second thought. The genius behind this type of influence is that people who don’t use social media are indirectly influenced by it too as they interact with living people who have been directly influenced by the propaganda. This strategy subtly influences whole societies. Platform owners have been slow to act to these problems; and an underlying reason may be the fact that misinformation and chaos online increase usage which means an increase in ad revenue which is a major source of income for a majority of social media companies.
The real question is how you’re supposed to safeguard yourself against the influences of these troll farms. You should try to follow specific people (by doing some proper research) instead of trying to understand the issue through your general feed. You should take charge and report accounts that show clear signs of automation such as, having the same profile picture as other accounts or commenting the same phrases on multiple posts. Fine-tune your preferences to control what kinds of content that is displayed on your feed. Customize what kind of ads you want to see. Be informed of the favorite issues of these troll farms and be very careful about what you ‘like’ and share online, a recent example of what these troll farms are looking to confuse and misdirect the public about are reopening economies without real care on how to flatten the COVID-19 curve. Double-check the sources of opinions that you agree with and try to be as socially aware and alert so that you flag and report false claims made online. However, the most effective way to save yourself from these influences is to use social media as little as you can and invest your time in real stories, real people, and real opinions and build your own opinion from there.