There have been two interesting developments in the world of organized political trolls today:
- The Daily Beast discovered that Russian Facebook ops did manage to incite some real-world organizing after all, but I’m linking you to Bellingcat’s writeup instead.
- It has generally been expected that Kremlin-backed trolls would go after Merkel, but instead most of the German- and English-language material is being generated by the American alt-right, and the Russians are nowhere to be found.
A few things stand out. First, the lines between state-run campaigns, astroturf, and citizen propagandizing were never clear to begin with, but soon it’s going to be impossible to draw them at all. Pretending to be Americans themselves, the Facebook Russians egg on actual right-wing American activists to organize rallies (this is so bananas I almost can’t get my head around it). Private American citizens organize anonymously online to carry out a propaganda campaign directed towards the German electorate against a German presidential candidate. Neither of these fit into our existing paradigms of an influence op, but neither are they citizen organizing in any sense we’re accustomed to.
Second, it’s a mistake to get hung up on numbers to the exclusion of all else when considering a decentralized political movement like the alt-right. Numbers matter for forming voting blocs, but not for the other corrosive effects they can have on public discourse and civil society. I’m not sure what to do about that, but yelling about how it’s only like two hundred dudes is no more helpful here than in the case of the jihadis.
Lastly, plenty of people have since 9/11 noted the rise of the non-state actor in the context of transnational Islamist terror groups like AQ and Daesh, but we have probably ascribed too much weight to the jihadis as jihadis: it will likely turn out that they were merely the first of the truly powerful non-state actors. I’ll leave aside the absurdity of a transnational alliance of ethnonationalists for another post, but at least jihadi tactics are in harmony with their universalist ideology. Anyway, technology has brought certain activities that were once the exclusive domain of the state within reach for the well-organized civilian: large-scale disinformation campaigns, geospatial intelligence, weaponized drones, etc. It remains to be seen whether the centralization of data by the tech giants will have any mitigating effect on the decentralization of capabilities.