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11 February 2016

Cyber trolling and Intersection: Beware of false friends

Twitter trolling. A case study of harassment, manipulation and deception

The Editorial Board of The Intersection Project: http://intersectionproject.eu/about-us

The Editorial Board of the Intersection Project consists of people with real names, real e-mail addresses, real phone numbers, and real experience. Our identities are verifiable. Our experience in International Relations and Russian or Ukrainian affairs speaks for itself. Everything we do is available on our web-site: we believe that transparency is a value in itself. The Intersection Project has been financed only by Polish taxpayers’ money through the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, a state entity established by Polish Parliament in 2011 (www.cprdip.pl).

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The NATO Strategic Communication Center for Excellence recently published a powerful report,  “Internet Trolling as a hybrid warfare tool: the case of Latvia”. It is a thorough analysis of online trolling practices concerning Latvia, looking at social media as a weapon for achieving political goals. It has plenty of hard facts and strong recommendations.

While reading the paper we – The Intersection Project – quickly became aware that we could use some of our own recent experiences with trolling to support the findings of the NATO report.

We launched the Intersection Project last year fully aware that it would irritate those operating in the ‘grey’ zone of social media. We have been hit by official Russian propaganda with repeated accusation of ‘Russophobia’. Our website and servers have been attacked several times through ‘Distributed Denial of Service”.

When we first noticed active Twitter trolling, we chose not to respond to those who (as the NATO report puts it) are “disseminating narratives to manipulate, harass or deceive”. However, we have been looking closely at their practices, to identify those responsible and to expose their ugly methods. When we noticed that some respected people started to promote content generated by the people involved, we decided to warn the public through this report of our own.

Let’s introduce the main characters: @molodyko alias Kolya Molodyko, @KremlinTrolls, @CKohutS, @tsnowbird5000, @ektrit.

We call them “The Group”. Offensive tweets against us are regularly produced and retweeted by these core members. Most of them hide behind anonymity; some provide names.

We discovered one strong connection between them. Not one of them has ever been an active participant of the research community dealing with Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, or has ever actively participated in public debates. Their only contribution is to create or repeat offensive Tweets.

Personal attacks

The Group first started with attacks on specific people involved in the Intersection Project. One of our editors was a direct target for primitive, false, and increasingly disgusting personal attacks. A quick look at the @molodyko and @Kremlintrolls accounts shows that harassment of the editor, delivered under a false “pro-Ukrainian” flag, became a core goal of these accounts. Creating seemingly “pro-Ukrainian” Internet noise to attack real supporters of Ukraine is an especially deceitful technique that exploits readers’ limited attention to the context of short Tweets.

Recent attacks have been directed at other Intersection Project editors. Carefully manipulated photos from social media have been used to create dishonest suggestions about these editors. Other respected and active supporters of Ukrainian statehood, including Intersection Project contributors, have also been targeted by the same group.

Institutional attacks

The perpetrators combined these primitive, personal attacks with new efforts to discredit both the Intersection Project and its founder, the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

In December @molodyko posted this about the Centre (@CPRDiP):

“Researcher” @molodyko missed the target completely with this easily refuted lie. The Centre is thoroughly checked by the Polish parliament and other public institutions. The Centre’s budget and financing are publicly available. The “researcher” created a lie to try to confuse readers.

In recent weeks the “researcher”, @Kremlintrolls, and other members of The Group took a new approach.

First came the suggestive trailer to fuel interest:

Then The Group “exposed” our editors’ alleged links to the Kremlin. The Group mixed photos from social media with other images to create false associations. These Tweets were extensively distributed by The Group to many respected figures and institutions.

Another member of the Group then offered supportive comment to make these claims seem more credible:

Along comes another one:

The final act (at least for the time being) of these increasingly bizarre attacks accuses the Editor-in-Chief and Director of the Centre of ‘terrorism’ against Ukraine because of this quotation:

There are many other attacks launched by The Group. Some are trivially ridiculous:

Other attacks are too vile to be repeated on the Intersection Project website.

What’s next?

We cannot prevent these people from doing what they do. They are immune to reasonable arguments and rational exchanges of views. It is impossible to identify whether they have any views of their own, hidden behind the curtains of thousands of retweets and insults.

We are not going to engage with The Group. We do not know who is in charge of this operation, or who is paid what by whom.

However, we do care about our colleagues, friends, followers, and readers who all deserve to be informed about these developments.

Our weapon is transparency. We reject the ambiguity, confusion and anonymity of cyber trolls. Overt and covert operations to discredit people and institutions are becoming a norm in the digital world. Legal systems can’t keep up.

Our advice to anyone who reads this? Please regularly read work supporting democratic developments in Eastern Europe to see for yourselves what makes @Kremlintrolls and these other fanatics so angry.