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Is the Internet Becoming a Vast Wasteland?

I’ve written posts about trolls in Cuba, where Operation Truth is said to use a thousand university-student trolls and trolls in China where government workers fabricate an estimated 488 million social media posts annually.

Now we are reading about Russian government trolls. Just before the election, this post documented Russian trolling and warned that “Trump isn’t the end of Russia’s information war against America. They are just getting started.”

“In Internet slang, a troll (/?tro?l/, /?tr?l/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response‚Ķ”

Internet troll, Wikipedia

After the election a new site, PropOrNot.com (propaganda or not) came online. Their mission is outing Russian propaganda using a combination of forensic online sleuthing and crowdsource reporting and they have compiled a list of 200 sites that rapidly spread stories written by Russian trolls. (More about PropOrNot here).

But, is PropOrNot what it claims to be? The people behind the site remain anonymous (for understandable reasons) and their domain name registration is private. How do they determine that a site is home for Russian content? Is there a chance that they are pro-Clinton, sour-grapes trolls? Might trolls and hackers figure out ways to game ProOrNot and get sites they oppose blacklisted?

Hmmm—I wonder if the US government hires trolls and, if not, should they? How about Canada? Chile? Zambia? How about Exxon Mobile trolls or McDonalds trolls? Is it trolls all the way down?

The fake news and trolling revealed during the last few months of the US political campaign has sowed doubts about everything we see and read online. We’re beginning the transition from “critical thinking” to “paranoid thinking.”

In 1961, Newton N. Minow gave a talk to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he worried that television was becoming a “vast wasteland:”

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

Will the Internet become a vast wasteland? Newton Minnow was correct, but there were and still are oases in the television wasteland. In spite of the trolls, fake news sites, troll-bots, etc. the Internet is and will remain replete with oases, but we cannot ignore the wasteland.

* * *

Update: I reached out to PropOrNot, pointing out that they do not identify themselves and their domain registration is private and asking how I could know they were not posting false claims themselves. They replied that “We sometimes provide much more background information about ourselves to professional journalists.”

They have now posted a document on their methodology, showing how they select sites for their list. They are not saying the sites are paid trolls, but that they publish information that originates on Russian government sites—that they disseminate Russian propaganda.

At least one of the sites on their list, The Corbett Report, has refuted the claim that they are pro-Russian, but they do not address the question of their distributing material that originated on Russian sites.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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