The troll’s creed

The troll’s creed:

Where there is error, let there be deception.
Where there is uncertainty, let there be confusion.
Where there is identity, let there be anonymity.
Where there is doubt, let there be disbelief.
Where there is despair, let there be hopelessness.
Where there is darkness, let there be an abyss.
Where there is sadness, let there be desolation.
Where there is hatred, let there be loathing.
Where there is offense, let there be anger.
Where there is discord, let there be division.

It doesn’t sound right, does it?

It shouldn’t. This ‘troll’s prayer’ is an satiric adoption of a real prayer, reverse-engineered to capture the true effect of online trolls.

The real-life inspiration for this ironic re-working is what’s known as the Prayer of St Francis, which directs people in the opposite direction of trolls: together, rather than apart.

The ‘troll’s creed’ however, helps explain the effect of a lot of online trolling.

Pope Francis’ critique of fake news, called The truth will set you free: Fake news and journalism for peace, is a refreshing antidote to the torrent of cynicism .

The broadside elevates the value of Truth to a spiritual level while defining fake news as a weaponised narrative tapping the worst impulses of humanity. The document is a remarkable combination of timeless religious principles applied to an emerging technological reality.

Adam in a 12th Century mosaic

Pope Francis traces misinformation back to the Garden of Eden.

The Vatican’s doctrine on misinformation is a point of difference in dogma and practice between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. As I’ve written before, sensible religion can be a shield against weaponised narratives. Religion is no substitute for verifiable facts and no one sensibly wants a theocracy to replace democracy. It’s for that reason, not in spite of it, that religion matters. The hopelessness of Russian propaganda hinges in part on the division it foments. This division is a powerful tool to rip apart democracies. So a system of values that sees the fundamental goodness and the brother- and sisterhood of humanity has special importance these days.

The Vatican’s broadside against fake news is contained in its ‘World Communications Day’ message released last week. The document also has its own adaptation of the Prayer of St Francis – but this time refocused on communication. It includes verses such as…

Where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
Where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
Where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;

See bottom of Vatican statement for the full adaptation.

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SXSW 2018: How the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West

I will be speaking about how the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West at the SXSW conference in Texas in March.

There is a lot to discuss.

The topic has many moving parts.

So please join me…


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Twitter’s update on retrospective review of Russian-related 2016 election activity

Twitter recently IDed 50,258 automated accounts as Russian-linked and Tweeting election-related content in 2106.

However, since Russia information war strategy is not just about engineered outcomes, but rather the ideas that can be laundered across domains, it’s likely Twitter’s count doesn’t get at the true scale of the operation.


It doesn’t for example get into individuals located around the world tweeting themes propagated by Russia. Twitter would likely not have the capacity to generate such a number. And yet, confecting and amplifying themes is part of Russia’s game plan.

In any case, here is Twitter’s update on its retrospective review of Russian-related 2016 election activity, delivered to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.

It was published on January 19, 2018.

One interesting point, it makes is the spread of conspiracy material from Wikileaks. As I recall, Guccifer 2.0 was much busier as a clearing house of “scoops” for journalists than a Twitter account.

We also reviewed engagement between automated or Russia-linked accounts and the
@Wikileaks, @DCLeaks_, and @GUCCIFER_2 accounts. The amount of automated
engagement with these accounts ranged from 47.5% to 72.7% of Retweets and 37% to 64% of likes during this time—substantially higher than the average level of automated engagement, including with other high-profile accounts [my emphasis]. The volume of automated engagements from Russian-linked accounts was lower overall. Our data show that, during the relevant time period, @Wikileaks Tweets were Retweeted approximately 5.65 million times. Of these Retweets, 196,836—or 3.48%—were from Russian-linked automated accounts. The Tweets from @DCLeaks_ during this time period were Retweeted 6,774 times, of which 2.47% were from Russian-linked automated accounts. The Tweets from @GUCCIFER_2 during this time period were Retweeted approximately 24,000 times, of which 2.32% were from Russian-linked automated accounts.

We also analyzed data concerning Tweets promoting the #PodestaEmails hashtag, which originated with Wikileaks’ publication of thousands of emails from the Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account. We found that slightly under 5% of Tweets containing #PodestaEmails came from accounts with potential links to Russia, and that those Tweets accounted for less than 20% of impressions generated within the first seven days of posting. The core of the hashtag was propagated by Wikileaks, whose account sent out a series of 118 original Tweets containing variants on the hashtag #PodestaEmails referencing the daily installments of the emails released on the Wikileaks website. In the two months preceding the election, around 64,000 users posted approximately 484,000 unique Tweets containing variations of the #PodestaEmails hashtag. Our automated spam detection systems identified in real time approximately 25% of those Tweets, hiding them from searches. Based on information we had available at the time we submitted our written testimony, we know that approximately 75% of impressions on the trending topic within the first seven days were views by U.S.-based users.

A significant portion of these impressions, however, are attributable to a handful of high-profile accounts, primarily @Wikileaks. At least one heavily-Retweeted Tweet came from another potentially Russia-linked account that showed signs of automation.

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Russian influence in the US (circa 1935)

Russian influence works by playing on existing biases. Today, a libertarian’s cry for “freedom” can lead a libertarian to support Moscow’s position – even unwittingly – on issues like Ukraine, US foreign policy, or NATO’s role in Eastern Europe.

Malcolm Cowley

So it was in earlier times when Moscow wooed Western writers to function as a cheering squad for Russian objectives within the US.

In 1935, American literary critic and writer Malcolm Cowley helped form the League of American Writers, whose members included Erskine Caldwell, Archibald MacLeish, Upton Sinclair, Clifford Odets, John Dos Passos, and Dashiell Hammett among others. The Communist (read: Moscow-controlled) group tried to influence US foreign policy.

As Wikipedia notes: “The League’s policy objectives changed over time in accord with the shifting party line of the CPUSA. Beginning as an anti-fascist organization in 1935, the League turned to an anti-war position following the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and to a pro-war position after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.”

Cowley, in a memoir, looks back on the time with a sense guilt.

After discussing his literary aspirations and his resolution to oppose the advance of Hitler in the 1930s, Cowley describes how the idealistic writers at the time, who he calls ‘Men of Good Will’, ‘failed disastrously’ in their aims. (emphasis mine)

“We’ in this case refers to all the thousands of writers and would-be writers, of intellectual and world-be intellectuals, in the Western countries who were moved by similar aspirations. We were the Men of Good Will, in the phrase made popular by Jules Romains’s many volumed-novel; we were those of public spirit, assured of their perspicacity, who held meetings and issued statements and uttered warnings of impending catastrophe. Internationally, the Russians were our friends. We had learned to be skeptical about what was happening inside Russia…Internationally, however, the Russians seemed above reproach. They supported the League of Nations, they voted for sanctions against the aggressors, they promised to defend any Eastern country that Hitler invaded, they proclaimed that peace was indivisible, that security must be collective, in other words, they flattered us by saying exactly what we might have said if given a voice in international rivalries. We were moralists, and so, it seemed, were the Russians outside their own borders.”

“As a matter of fact, we were part of their calculations. They hoped, they gambled they could change the policies of France, Britain, the United States, and thus form an alliance too strong for Hitler to attack. In order to persuade the governments of those countries, they had to create a strong base in popular sympathies, and this was not a task that could be performed by the Communist parties… But perhaps – so the Russian leaders must have reckoned – the Men of Good Will could do more to convince or frighten the statesmen. We writers, professors, publicists might thereby contribute something to the defense of the Soviet Union- and hence we were solicited, importuned, published, assembled in congresses, gently admonished, wildly praised, and in general made to feel our importance.”

From —And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade. Chapters of Literary History. 1918-1978 by Malcolm Cowley

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