If you are a highly engaged member of any community, you’ve likely run into trolls in the comments of your favorite websites.
These are people who come in with off-topic comments, cursing, highly inflammatory statements, or post things that divide communities or paint them in negative ways.
The Internet is the great democratization of information, and it certainly seems that trolls are destroying the experience for many online to those casually using the Internet. Are these Internet trolls multiplying? Are people now simply given a new avenue to say the things they want but do so anonymously, prompting more “troll-like behavior,” or is something else at play?
The Internet was a place to have productive conversations and open discussions regarding a myriad of topics, but that has changed for many as Internet trolling seems to be reaching new levels. Instead of open discussion and debate, it seems that many are only disrupting conversations on the Internet.
It seems that every few months, someone proclaims on reddit that paid internet trolls and shills exist in the bitcoin community.
These claims are usually met with responses from concerned community members, those saying it is garbage, and a series of questions from moderators telling the original poster to prove the claims being made. Many responses from the community insist that the Internet trolls aren’t disrupting anything and that self-policing and moderation will help ensure that trolling doesn’t have an impact.
While many would like to believe that Internet trolling doesn’t have an impact, the data simply says otherwise. In a study funded by the National Science Foundation titled “The ‘‘Nasty Effect:’’ Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies,” researchers found that Internet trolling does in fact have a negative impact. This study was found that Internet trolling can sow seeds of doubt about the materials being presented. This study offers several insights on how the online environment may shape and polarize perceptions about topics, including new technologies.
In the study, researchers set up a blog and asked participants to read a blog post they had created about a technology called nano silver. The blog post presented points detailing the benefits and potential risks of the technology and with a comments section. Half of the participants saw comments that were trolling and the other half saw a comments section displaying civil discussion taking place.
The comments displayed for both groups were of equal length, contained various perspectives, and both praised the technology and discussed the potential risks. Readers in the study group were asked how they felt about the technology before and after reading the comments.
The participants exposed to the civil discussion reported having the same beliefs about the technology after reading the comments. The participants exposed to the hostile comments reported far more polarized feelings afterwards than they had reported initially. After reading the “troll” comments, the participants reported feeling significantly more negative about the technology and its potential risks than they had previously reported prior to reading the comments.
The findings positively support the theory that Internet trolling can effectively change the perspective of others reading the material presented.
After the study was published, Popular Science removed comments from articles on the Popular Science website stating,
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.
Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.
Several months ago, Coin Fire was tipped off about a group of “internet trolls” who were being paid to disrupt conversations across the Internet about a wide variety of topics, including bitcoin. Executive Editor Mike Johnson and various members of the Coin Fire staff were highly skeptical of this initial contact.
Several members of the Coin Fire staff requested proof in the form of reddit account usernames, evidence the accounts were controlled by the individuals involved in the trolling and shilling, and researched the corporate entities that were supposedly the company name of this team.
Approximately nine months ago, we received a strange message on reddit from a user that had information regarding shilling that was taking place on the site.
It wasn’t the first time our reddit account had received a strange and almost cryptic-like message, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time we saw someone declaring that paid shills and trolls existed specifically in the bitcoin subreddit.
At the time, Mike was the primary person behind Coin Fire and was overwhelmed with following a few leads regarding bitcoin merchant acceptance, so he left the message unread and without reply for several weeks. When I asked him why the message was left in the reddit inbox with nary a response for such a long time, he told me,
At the time, it was just me deciding where to spend resources and time. I was traveling, working on improving the site, and following a few other story leads. I chalked it up to a trolling itself and didn’t think anything of it.
Eventually, Mike responded to the message stating that he would be open to chatting about what the person behind the statements had to say.
Believing that the story opportunity had passed, Mike noted that he hadn’t received a response on BitMessage several weeks later and considered it to be a dead lead.
It wasn’t until several months later when a BitMessage came in and was signed by the reddit user that the potential of a story even appeared on Coin Fire’s radar. The message stated that the person on the other end wanted to make sure we could be trusted to protect his or her identity, and that they would slowly begin passing us the relevant details about the company that employed them and the extent of shilling and trolling on the bitcoin subreddit specifically.
Over the next several months, the person on the other end would provide information to our series of highly skeptical questions regarding the operations in which they were involved. We later learned they were part of relatively small team after learning about the job via a friend.
With each set of questions and answers, it seemed that what was being shared with our team was real, but the level of skepticism was still high amongst Coin Fire team members. It wasn’t until months later that the person we were communicating with opened up more and began providing further shreds of evidence.
“Ted” claims to control over 100 reddit accounts, but we’ve been provided evidence that only 50 or so are truly under his control. The reddit accounts he is using all have long posting histories, and each have some account length and all appear completely legitimate from a first glance. Some of the accounts were started by other members of the reddit community initially and later purchased by his employer for use in his work.
The accounts all have “vast interests” and many of them are members of the /r/bitcoin subreddit, but they also contain comments and postings in several other subreddits. Many of the accounts started off primarily on a different subreddit and eventually found themselves on /r/bitcoin. Oftentimes, these accounts pose as new users of the cryptocurrency or as people who are experts in other fields of banking or technology.
Some of the accounts have been crafted by Ted himself or others on his team, and attention has been paid to keep track of the various accounts, the personas created around them, and even details such as “acceptable times” to post. All accounts are shared in a system designed to help posters keep track of important details and make sure the illusion of genuine accounts is maintained.
The level of detail put behind the maintenance of accounts, personas, and posting times shows that the operation has established itself and is likely well-funded.
Ted shared his system with Coin Fire via a TeamViewer connection and spoke at length with our team about how the system works when it comes to reddit. Ted works from his home and a great emphasis is placed on following “rules. The “DisruptDictator” system is locked to his specific IP addresses for access and contains several logging systems for his activity inside the dashboard from his employer. His Internet connection was in no way monitored and thus our team had free range to poke around with Ted, but his paranoia was high as he walked our team through several aspects of his daily job all the while requesting we protect his identity and that of the company he contracts for.
While Ted understands his employer can see the traffic indicating a remote connection when he is connected via a VPN provided by his employer, he believed it to be safe.
Ted logs into the reddit accounts via a VPN. Different accounts are marked to use different VPN connections to make them appear further legitimate to reddit administrators.
The system uses a Twitter bootstrap UI so it sizes down and can be “docked” in a browser window while the bulk of the work will take place in the larger window. Ted surfs to a thread using specific instructions to find it for disruption. From interactions with the dashboard, it becomes evident it is powered by Microsoft .NET and ASP.NET.
Ted explains that early on, the developers of the Disrupt dashboard realized that using links would leave referral links to the sites they intend to disrupt. While they had the dashboard locked to specific IP addresses, it wouldn’t take long for site administrators to understand what was happening. The next iteration contained text with a URL that people such as Ted would copy and paste in to a browser, but the reddit administrators would eventually see direct linking and then voting as a potential means for disruption. In an effort to make sure the traffic and actions seem as organic as possible, each person will move to the particular thread using instructions telling them how to find the same thread that the “pitcher” throws at them.
Ted’s day is simple. He spends approximately eight hours online each day with an hour lunch period. He only uses the dashboard in one window to determine where he will go next and makes efforts to disrupt. Sometimes he is directed to create new posts that will paint bitcoin reddit users in negative ways.
“Sometimes, I just have to go and make an anti-female post or something that makes bitcoin users look bad,” Ted tells us.
Ted explains that when he first started, he was given plenty of reading material. His first week, he was given limited access to the dashboard that contained a myriad of content that would teach him the basic ropes on how he would be disrupting online conversations or communities. Ted’s assignment was primarily reddit disruption, so he became familiar with the top users in the subreddits he would be tasked with disrupting.
Learning about the top posters in the bitcoin subreddit has allowed Ted to understand the viewpoints of the users. As he is engaging them, he is tasked with entering details on the dashboard about those particular users. If he has seen a piece of information in a comment about the geographic location of a particular user for example, he will enter it on the dashboard notes so he or other users can refer to it later.
Ted is technically an independent contractor who is paid each week. Ted has been working as an independent contractor for this company for approximately a year. When Ted started his new “career path,” he was making roughly $8 per hour but has since moved up to the $10 an hour level. He understands that eventually he can become a “pitcher” or someone who tosses new stories and areas that need disruptions to the “hitters” such as himself and make approximately $15 an hour.
His weekly checks come from an extensive range of company names. Ted shared several of the canceled checks with the Coin Fire team who then explored the company names and registrations from various states. We found that the companies exist on paper within different states, but that other details, such as addresses, are typically mail drop locations or other postal type boxes.
None of the canceled checks contained names of companies that had any sort of Internet presence so finding out further information outside of what is available in state filings was difficult. The “leading group” behind the entire operation likely paying the smaller companies for services is completely hidden.
An ever-changing check signer makes it more difficult for Ted to find new work. While technically a “consultant” on paper and to friends and family, he can’t offer his employer up on a resume or job applications. It appears to potential employers from the outside that Ted has been virtually unemployed for the last year.
Over the last several months, Ted has provided check statements, banking statements, messages from various shill accounts on reddit, access to his machine via TeamViewer, and provided names of the ever-changing company he performs work for.
When we asked Ted who his company represents, he admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure. He speculates it isn’t a government, but rather private companies that are paying the “home base” who in turn are paying the team behind the disruption. He has only spoken with a handful of people he works for on brief telephone conversations. He stated he was aware of at least one “pitcher” defecting and confessing on reddit one time as his dashboard showed one day the need to disrupt the conversation.
Who is behind the trolling and disruption isn’t clear, but whether or not it is having an impact at times has been clear as Ted showed us threads where the entire conversation had been steered another way by his efforts.
We asked Ted if he would continue working and disrupting online conversations. He said that he understands he may get fired if his identity is exposed because of this piece and is ready to accept that outcome, but would make no efforts on his own to quit until he has found another job that can pay his bills.
reddit staff did not reply to requests from Coin Fire for comment regarding the information presented.[/level-plus]
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