It’s been nearly three years since Adrian Chen first discussed the Internet Research Agency, a euphemistically titled group which was pumping out pro-Kremlin and anti-American messages for money. At the time, eyes were elsewhere online – it was the year of Ashley Madison, after all, and a time when China ranked alongside Russia (if not higher) in the space of public paranoia.
Even then, the idea of governments astroturfing spaces (i.e. hiring online goons to make it look like their actions had far greater support than in reality) was not new. China’s 50 Cent Army (a joke on the low rates supposedly paid to the sockpuppets posting pro-Communist Party propaganda) had been floating about since the early noughties. The US had branches for this sort of thing since 2010. The Snowden leaks revealed the UK had been indulging in this sort of thing too.
The recent revelation that astroturing had been used on Reddit and Tumblr thus should have come as a surprise to no-one; that it was the Internet Research Agency involved in it, even less so. It’s tempting, in fact, to say that given that we know how prevalent this practice seems to be, we’re in a better situation than we were in 2015. We have more groups and institutes keen to fact check supposed Russian sockpuppets (more typically called trolls) than ever before. People are, in some ways, more wary than ever of information coming from certain outlets.
In practice, what that means is the disturbing brand of nihilism which once hung out on the corners of 4Chan has become increasingly pervasive. We live in the time of the simulacrum: in which every piece of information is supposedly an illusion, created to hide the lack of any real truth. The videos you watch are going to be created through neural networks, so you can’t believe your eyes; the words you read have already become synonymous with fake news regardless of how you lean politically. To be savvy means to trust nothing, or to go hard in support of institutions which have serious questions about impartiality (Hamilton 68, though a fascinating and at times useful resource, has understandably been accused of being a little too close to the old Cold Warrior mentality of NATO).
The point of sockpuppetry is to inflate the influence of a group, or a country, or an opinion, and to discredit opposing points of view. In some regards, it’s done the latter far more effectively than could have been hoped. Practically any deviation from the norm is now treated as evidence of yet more Russian interference. Sockpuppets, in short, have turned fairly rational and moderate individuals into conspiracy theorists. And conspiracy theorists are, by the nature of society, a joke at best and a concerning fringe at worst.
The age of disbelief is upon us. A little cynicism is healthy; a lot is not. The failures of social media companies to combat this behaviour is a blight which will continue to linger on long after the scandals over Russia have died down.