Monday, 2 October 2017

On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog

All this talk about fake news and Russian trolls, Russian bots and various other state- and non-state actors using the social media to destabilise Western democracies has brought about calls for an end to anonymity in the net.

When the internet got going, back in the early 1990s, there was a cartoon of a dog seated by a computer saying to another dog "On the Internet*, nobody knows you're a dog". It was a comment about how anyone can get a made-up name email account and use this to set up an online profile. At that time (1993), this applied to the various chat- and newsgroups that sprung up long before the advent of Facebook or Twitter. At that time, no one was particularly fussed.

So what? Anonymous nerds can go online and get angry with people who disagreed with them about Star Trek or Dungeons and Dragons or whatever they were into.

Today, online anonymity has the power to fracture society.

Set up enough anonymous accounts, automate the process whereby one account 'likes', 'shares' or 'retweets' posts by others, and the massive echo-chamber that is today's social media takes on the power to change enough minds to swing elections. Or referendums.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Russia has been doing this for some time. Three and half years ago - before Brexit, before Trump, before Catalonia, I wrote about this phenomenon:
The Soviet Union, through its security services, saw fit to meddle in the affairs of other countries using stooges, sympathisers and fellow-travellers to muddy the waters. 
And so, today, the USSR's successor state and the KGB's successor agency are engaged in disinformation practices. Rather than pumping cash into dull ideological rags like the Morning Star or weirdo leftie groups that few took seriously, the Kremlin's disinformation strategy today is more subtle, more modern. 
Each day, an army of English-speaking commentators is scribbling away on the online comments pages of mainstream Western media. Nicknamed the '40-rouble army' (after the sum of money a Kremlin commentator gets paid per comment), you will see their handiwork on many websites from the Economist to the Daily Mail
These people write to order about issues that affect the Kremlin directly or indirectly. They are recognisable by their tone; frequently provocative, insulting, attacking the author (or commentator) personally. They are persistent too, returning to a thread to ensure that they have the last word in any argument. They wield false facts and disinformation. They often use unorthodox English (in particular their misuse of definite and indefinite articles, a giveaway), dropping in the odd Latin word, and displaying a rather pompous style. In contrast to Ukippers, whose comments may well be full of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors - but whose writing at least has a natural, native English flow. 
The 40-rouble army is well versed in the arts of black propaganda. They latch on to populist movements and use divide-and-rule strategies and tactics. The EU and the US are regular targets, so they will attack (for example) the EU using similar rhetoric deployed by anti-EU populists. 
They will wade into arguments supporting Ukippers who use terms like "EUSSR",  stirring up anti-EU sentiment for all its worth. All busy bashing Brussels. The reason is obvious - EU membership has changed the former captive nations of the Soviet bloc from poor dictatorships into rapidly-growing democracies. Putin doesn't want Russians to aspire to this. 
Example (copy-pasted verbatim from a comment under a Daily Telegraph article)
"I am not sure that people are aware of how dangerous the current situation is. We are possibly heading towards a 'Cuban Misslile' crisis in intensity. They are rounding up judges, Senators - anyone with links to the genuine government and charging them with treason and other crimes. They have already imposed the new front central banker. However that is not the serious bit other than for the victims of the new lynch mobs. They are already fomenting strife in the Eastern Ukraine. Attack mobs. Particularly the Crimea. Russia cannot let its naval base go. It is essential to all its strategic defence and it is now clear that the EU/US axis (of pure evil) is planning some sort of confrontation that could lead to outright war. I suggest this is possibly the whole idea. Long in the planning. The west is desperate for war - its economy is in utter ruin from debt. They are warning Putin not to go in. But he has little choice if the East starts to crack. We are entering dangerous times indeed and just remember it was our corrupt and treasonous politicians in the thick of it. Quite happy to jeopardise this country and every person in it. To gamble with the lives of every living thing on the planet. For greed and power. The Russians have done nothing to provoke this crisis - it is Western in concept and so far in its illegal action."
This does not sound like the work of 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. This is coming at you from the corridors of the Kremlin. Yet the author claims (I have emphasised the words) to be British. Our corrupt and treasonous politicians..." "...this country..."  
In the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections, those of you who follow the comments on the online media, keep a close eye on who posts what - I'm certain that the Kremlin's 40-rouble army will make its presence felt. A little bit of low-risk, easily-deniable mischief that helps sow discord and discontent among the citizens of the EU. The Kremlin is ready to stoke it for all it's worth to weaken the EU by one large, strong member.
And it did it. The EU is being weakened by the loss of its third-largest member state. The amplification of the UKIP message (a fringe at best) through a bombardment of comments in the media and social media helped tip the balance in favour of Leave. And the Kremlin did it again, by focusing social media advertising that played on key concerns of voters in swing states to tip the balance in favour of Trump.

America is waking up to this. Questions are being asked in Washington. Facebook and Twitter are reluctantly owning up to the role played by targeted advertising in the run-up to last November's election. And the role of anonymous bloggers, and fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, deployed tactically to support the Kremlin's campaigns.

In the old days, few people with fringe ideas could be bothered to take the trouble to write a letter to the editor. Those that did were "written in green ink," recalled one old editor, and ended up on the spike. Today anyone with a laptop can wade in to a political argument and write the most ridiculous bollocks and find like-minded folk agreeing, sharing and re-tweeting, thus amplifying the effect. And the results on society, as we can see, are decidedly negative.

After a quarter of a century during which we have got used to net anonymity, it is time now - for the good of democratic society - to call an end to it.

If you want a postal address, you generally need to prove who you are and where you live. If you want a Twitter account or Facebook profile, it should be in your name, not an untraceable nickname with a phoney avatar. The same goes for email accounts. As a first step, online companies should rate their users from a transparency point of view, certificating those who are honest and transparent about who they are and where they're from.

I don't mind disagreeing with a real-life person whose identity is shared and certified online. But someone named English Patriot_4_Brexit who is also vocal in his hatred of Ukraine and support for Bashir Al-Assad (and of course Vladimir Putin) should not be allowed to voice his views on the social media.

Internet users have a right to know who's a bone fide user and who's a troll furthering ruptures in Western society.

*In 1993, standard usage was Internet and e-mail; today it's internet and email.

This time last year:
Low water mark

This time six years ago:
Łódź to Jeziorki by car in four hours
[See how Poland's road network has improved!]

This time sevenyears ago:
What's new on the manor?

This time eight years ago:
The funeral of Tadeusz Lesisz

This time nine years ago:
Socialist realism in the boardroom

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