The emerging business models of troll factories

A few years ago Freedom House highlighted the dire state of media freedom around the world, revealing that nearly half of the 65 countries they analyzed for their Freedom on the Net report were trying to influence the media, either in their own country or another country. It perhaps marked a clear turning point in public attitudes towards social media, with the euphoria and optimism of the Arab Spring giving way to our current dystopia of fake news and misinformation. 

The transition was nicely encapsulated by economist Tim Harford, who bemoaned that we are worse off after a decade of social media. Nowhere is this more evident than in the industry that has sprung up around the creation and amplification of misinformation. Research from online security firm Digital Shadows highlights just how big the industry now is, with around 3,000 spoof media websites spreading their lies online. Just as with phishing scams, many of these websites are designed to replicate popular news sites, whether that’s via their design, their url or some other method of deception.

The bread and butter of this burgeoning industry was the falsification of documents, which involved taking legitimate documents and changing them ever so slightly, before then leaking them to the public. It’s all part of a misinformation campaign that is increasingly common in Russia.

Political deployment

The report goes on to say that the political deployment of these kinds of tactics has received a growing amount of attention, with the relatively low cost of the approach making it a widely available strategy. Indeed, the authors state that you can start a campaign for as little as $7, which is all you would need to secure the services of a bot network for a short time on a social network such as Twitter.

These are relatively new strategies that have built upon a more enduring model utilizing things such as astroturfing, which is the practice of posting false reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor and Amazon. The report also highlights the rise of cryptocurrencies, which they believe have given criminals a new platform to scam people via.

The number of different business models that are emerging in this space was highlighted by a recent report from the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, which observed various approaches being deployed around the recent elections in the Philippines. 

The report identifies four clearly distinguishable business models operating in the political sphere, and highlights how the industry is both increasingly normalized and increasingly lucrative as political parties appreciate the impact it can have on campaigning, especially as regulations have largely failed to keep pace with advances in the sector.

A professional outfit

The authors remind us that the trolling industry isn’t full of nerdy guys operating in isolation in their parents’ basement, but rather a savvy tech entrepreneur who is able to deploy their digital skills in an increasingly sophisticated industry that serves both political and corporate clients. Indeed, its increasingly acceptable status means that such an individual isn’t even plying their wares in the shadows so much as operating as part of the politician’s in-house PR team, or through that of a dedicated political PR and marketing firm.

Four clear business models emerged during the analysis.

  1. The first of these was the in-house staff model, whereby political campaigning teams were expected to have the expertise and resources to conduct trolling in house, often in addition to their more traditional duties. 
  2. The second approach was the outsourced model, whereby this work was specifically outsourced to dedicated misinformation consultancies (which do exist). Such consultancies have a team of people to produce and disseminate misinformation, usually on a project-by-project basis.
  3. The third business model found was a more clickbait-oriented model, which the researchers suggest is the most blatantly commercial model of the four. It’s an approach taken by some of the bigger players in the sector, such as Twinmark Media Enterprises, who had a significant online presence prior to being shut down by authorities in the run-up to the 2019 election season.
  4. The fourth commonly observed business model was the state-sponsored approach, which sees a much more official and formalized method of digital bullying and intimidation that aims to censor debate and silence dissenters. Because of the state-sponsored approach, this model often has stakeholders from the very highest echelons of government, with senior politicians typically actively involved. They will, for instance, make a public attack, which is then amplified by a ‘keyboard army’ of supporters.

While such tactics are becoming increasingly mainstream, the authors believe that this awareness will help to grow the appreciation of the damage such tactics can do to political integrity. Of course, the flip side is that when such tactics become so pervasive as to completely erode trust in both the media and politicians (both of which is already at incredibly low levels), then faith in democracy could be irretrievably damaged.

The authors urge greater legal reforms to be made around campaign transparency, but there remains a considerable fear that regulators are always a step or two behind the trolls, and the politicians who will gladly make use of them. This is especially so in an increasingly global marketplace where the troll firms themselves are harder to police. As Tim Harford says, after a decade of mass-market social media, it’s increasingly hard to argue that society is better off as a result.

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