The Emperor’s New Trolls

Listening recently to the Sam Harris podcast, I understood for the first time the full audacity of Putin’s psych-ops program. In the podcast, Renée DiResta lays bare how the Russian troll-farm operatives systematically trawl social-media oceans looking for hot-button ideas to amplify and exploit. Her data shows how a single fake account might jump from religion to politics, to race, before eliciting a suitable response; but once the troll locks onto something promising, it works to prise open that dormant social fissure, drafting in armies of allied bots and trolls to tweak the minds of their unsuspecting followers and eventually send rivers of hot hate erupting to the surface.

Anything will do. The only common theme: it must be divisive.

National Pride, Gay Pride, Trans Pride, Geek Pride; every Conspiracy theory you have heard of, and many you won’t have; Anti Vaxxers, Flat Earthists, Nibiru Millenarianists; Feminists vs Incels; Immigrants vs Nazis…

You name it. It’s not only Trump or Brexit here. If people are prone to argue about something down the pub, or over their Thanksgiving tables, then it qualifies for artificial inflation.

Take the Anti-Vaxxer phenomenon. Although the majority of parents have always understood the importance of vaccinating their children; starting in about 2013 the vast majority of Facebook posts talking about vaccination began promoting the Anti-Vaxxer agenda — we now know that many of these posts came from bot-farms and troll-centers posing as concerned parents.

“We started looking at the Russian trolls, because that data set became available. One of the first things that came out was they tweet about vaccines way more often than the average Twitter user. Broniatowski said trolls tweeted about vaccines about 22 times more often than regular Twitter users.”

To anybody looking in—unaware; believing they are part of an organic swell of concerned activism—it can be hard to resist. Overwhelmed, their herd mentality sub-routines are spoofed by an environment saturated with the cognitive chaff. Betrayed by their own evolutionary psychology, the individual now accepts the once ridiculous conclusion and shifts their opinion towards the herd consensus.

What was once crazy becomes the norm. The small number of people predisposed to think for themselves become confused and increasingly alienated…
…sound familiar?


Bad faith actors are exploiting a psychological heuristic intended to calibrate an individual’s point of view with the wisdom of the herd.


This may explain the sudden shift across multiple apparently unrelated domains: bad faith actors are exploiting a psychological heuristic intended to calibrate an individual’s point of view with the wisdom of the herd. They are able to take fringe views from a few genuine nutters / visionaries and amplify them to the point that they became irresistible. In this way, the trolls can establish a new social center of gravity.

Once this happens, society’s own socio-cognitive immune system jumps into life and flash mobs of outrage spring up to shout-down any remaining legitimate objections.

At least forewarned is forearmed. Knowing the troll’s modus-operandi, it is vital that we pay attention. When unfathomable, illogical, but frequently espoused positions suddenly appear, we must examine them for traces of trollish manipulation… even if we agree with the sentiment.

I have always considered myself pro-diversity and pro-social justice, but recently feel utterly left behind by the progressive-narrative of the ‘snowflake’ social-justice-warriors. How much of this is because well-intentioned, but naive and impressionable, individuals have been hypnotized by squads of Trolls into contorted extreme positions they would never have gotten into on their own?

Societies are already prone to ‘emperors new clothes’ style excursions; evidence of reality can be ignored if enough people reinforce a common counterfactual position.

This happens organically with fashion (believe me, beards, rolled-up trousers, and lumberjack shirts never looked cool) and with the slow shifting tides of social taboo; but clearly, it can also be gamed, cynically exploited, and weaponized by skilled actors.

Knowing this, we must seek out and examine these once harmless embers of fringe opinion so skillfully coaxed and fanned into conflagrations of artificial outrage.


Trolling may turn out to be a positive influence; a constant perturbation of society, preventing it from settling down prematurely into false local minima.


Briefly, on a brighter note, the best deceptions always contain some grain of truth, and the trolls seem indiscriminate about which conflicts they amplify. This implies that some of the fringe ideas they take up will be valid, and if accepted by a broader slice of society, may actually take us to a better place. Trolling eventually may turn out to be a positive influence; a constant perturbation of society, preventing it from settling down prematurely into false local minima.

Unacknowledged though, this verbose flood of disinformation is becoming an existentially problematic predicament.

We are facing rafts of very real, very immediate problems and both a naive preoccupation with wishful thinking and the equal and opposite reaction of radical, nationalist, traditionalist, status-quo dogma, will bog us down in cognitive red-tape while the forests burn and the ice-caps melt.

Who would have thought that #gamergate might be the tremor that announces the coming of our Fermi-Paradox filter?


This essay is also on Medium. You can support my writing by ‘clapping’ for it:

#maga #trump #sadpuppies #metoo #antivaxxer #blacklivesmatter #ReasonsToLeaveEU #fandamentalism

4 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Trolls”

  1. Hi Tony
    I really enjoy your writing and approach to
    put ideas and your predictions into a better understanding for all of us to contemplate and speculate

    Here’s a short poem for your winter atmosphere

    Bill Jinny

    Snew is a cominnn….
    Wisps that shiver in the chil—–
    Ah Harrrr me’s chin has turned into a cold turnip—-
    Bye The Bye

    1. Nice, though I might have missed some of its deeper metaphors… 😉
      (P.S. I’m Toby not Tony for when you are recommending my books to your friends!)

  2. Sounded good until you disappeared down the global warming rabbit hole. Warming topped out 20 years ago. Time to stop going there!

    1. Well, that’s the trouble isn’t it. The lies are so pervasive, and persuasive, that none of us know what’s true anymore!
      I think you are probably wrong about global warming not being an issue, but I would certainly leave open some room for error on my side.

      Best we can do is think for ourselves and try to resist the algorithmic propaganda whenever we notice it!

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