ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo

Trolling, Takedowns, and Cyber-Tokhang

Suddenly, none of us are immune from the weaponization of the Internet.


[Ed's Note: This was posted on social media by poet Marne Kilates and is being published on SPOT.ph with permission.]

(SPOT.ph) I've been trying to navigate new or recent information about the manipulation or “weaponization” of the Internet. Specifically, how Facebook is allegedly being used to bend public awareness into the direction certain “parties,” like authoritarian-leaning governments, want it to take. This is not to mention bend the public will by deceiving it. Why do some of our friends experience troll swarms and mass reporting to Facebook's administration so their pages are threatened to be taken down, when it is the trolls and reporters themselves practicing “unacceptable behavior” or “not according to our standards” (per Facebook) such as personal attacks, death threats, and profanities? I tried to gather what I know and simplify it for the consumption of ordinary Facebook netizens like most of us.

 

The taking down of Facebook pages of the people who have legitimate complaints and who are the victims of troll swarms (instead of those of the trolls who actually spew death threats and profanities) is one of the signs of what World-Wide-Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls the failure of the system. “The way ad revenue works with clickbait is not fulfilling the goal of helping humanity promote truth and democracy,” Berners-Lee said. It has turned out to be not the electronic or online democracy we thought it would be (or not even the huge entertainment platform it purports itself to be). In the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the outspoken super-rich philanthropist George Soros said of Google and Facebook, “The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called ‘the freedom of mind’. There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences.” Soros warned of an “even more alarming prospect” on the horizon if data-rich Internet companies such as Facebook and Google paired their corporate surveillance systems with state-sponsored surveillance—a trend that’s already emerging in places such as the Philippines.”

 

First, the attackers of specific accounts, say Miguel Syjuco’s, oftentimes are NOT people. They are bots (Internet robots: In computing, they are an autonomous program on a network, like Facebook, that can interact with computer systems or users, especially designed to respond or behave like a player in an adventure game) fed by master trolls and monitored by algorithms (software designed to follow a certain set of rules). When Facebook is swarmed by "complaints" or requests for a takedown of an account, it is the algorithm that executes the takedown, not any human being as far as I know. Or, it is the whole Facebook machinery that actually takes down the account. The "human touch" like the Photoshopped memes (the complaints and mockery accompanied by pictures, like cyber or Internet posters) are generated by humans, the troll-masters; the trolls repeat and multiply the postings, and the bots repeat and multiply them some more.

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How is this possible? “Gaming the system” is a term familiar enough to those who deal with large numbers—those in marketing, mass media, consumer behavior, and even elections, on the Internet or in real life. For those of us not familiar with the term, Oxford says that to “game” means to “manipulate (a situation), typically in a way that is unfair or unscrupulous”; in computing, to manipulate the numbers and data in order to “fool” the algorithms that will execute the machine instructions based on the false or manipulated data. Note that the keyword is “machine.” The troll army is maintained through paid accounts (corporate or government accounts that use Facebook for paid advertisements, marketing and communication assignments). The paid accounts, from their level, can maintain literally armies of trolls and bots. That's why we who make use of Facebook's free membership, even with a few hundred or even thousands of followers, can offer no contest to them. That's why Mocha Uson or Sass Rogando Sasot or Thinking Pinoy (TP) can boast of tens upon tens of thousands of followers because their accounts are paid for by government. In other words, taxpayers.

 

That is the machine part of the deception and takedown equation. The human element is even more interesting. Commenting on my page, my Facebook friend Steven Edward Rogers reminded me not to discount the real true believers, who “hang out online, congregate around figures like Mocha and TP, and take pride in being part of the the cyber-Tokhang brigade. Then there are the paid trolls, and then there are the bots.” These are the three elements working together, Roger adds, and they are “to a large extent centrally directed...I believe at least. The level of coordination is too great to be casual or accidental.” Both machines and humans, interfacing in the largest new (social) media monopolies of the day to manipulate what we used to assume was a “harmless” entertainment and gossip venue to enable it to change or control the behavior of the unknowing, are what we are up against in this post-post-modern game of communications.

 

The Internet, instead of democratizing knowledge as formerly hoped for, has become the arena in the scramble between lifeless (and even death-dealing) data and information on one hand, and human and humanist knowledge and wisdom on the other. Indeed, if knowledge and wisdom are the foundations of a necessary second Enlightenment, the Internet has become the battleground for true and enlightened democracy.

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