Right-wing trolls: an Internet plague

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Giant world-ruling reptilians

Whenever I write editorials for The Coast, a mildly left-wing political and entertainment weekly in Halifax, I attract a barrage of abusive online comments from right-wing trolls.  My February 24th piece on Project Censored’s 2011 list of under-reported news stories was no exception. I mentioned that the number two story on the Project Censored list said that the U.S. military is the world’s biggest polluter. That prompted one troll to compare me to a Holocaust denier.

“I always love it when Bruce Wank cites his sources. It reminds me of watching Jim Keegstra on the news in the mid ’80s, staring into the camera with his wide-eyed demagogue’s leer and defending his stance on the Holocaust because he had books that proved it,” wrote the troll who goes by the handle “Multi-Culti Ivan.” But he wasn’t done yet.

“So, The US military is a bigger polluter than the decrepit industrial apparatus of the former Soviet bloc; or the burgeoning industrial capacity of India and China. Tell me another fable Cousin Brucie. Tell me about the 12 foot tall lizards from another dimension that really run the world.”

If Coast stats are to be believed, the industrious Multi-Culti Ivan has contributed 5,484 other comments since he slithered out of the woodwork in January, 2010. Where does he and his fellows get all their vituperative energy?

Last December, Guardian columnist George Monbiot wondered aloud whether right-wing libertarian trolls were being recruited and paid to contribute abusive, harassing comments to divert attention away from a writer’s main arguments and hijack intelligent debate. In March, a Canadian blogger spotted an ad on Craigslist recruiting paid right-wing trolls to advance Conservative Party propaganda that would balance “the left-wing bias” in major media outfits.

“Ideally you can find or make up facts and statistics to stir controversy,” the ad said brightly. “Where suited humour, sarcasm and personal insults are welcome.”

OK, so the ad may or may not have been a hoax. My personal experience tells me though that even if my trolls are not getting paid, they’ve ripped a page from the right-wing propaganda playbook. Made up facts, stats, and lay on the personal insults? Oh yeah!

In pre-Internet days, most newspapers would not publish anonymous letters to the editor except in those few circumstances when anonymity protected an especially vulnerable person’s privacy. Nowadays, it’s a free-for-all  in the mainly anonymous online comments sections with rampant personal attacks, fallacious, irrelevant arguments and fabricated facts and statistics.

Why do media outlets that publicly pride themselves on the accuracy of their reporting, allow these anonymous trolls to spread right-wing bullshit on their websites?

That’s a serious question. Does anyone have a serious answer?

UPDATE #1: Since I posted this piece yesterday, Multi-Culti Ivan has shape-shifted to “Father Ivan”. Incredibly, when a commenter changes his handle at the Coast, the names on all previous comments automatically change too. Who are you really Multi-Culti and Father Ivan? Will you ever summon up the courage to come out of the shadows? I use my real name. Why don’t you?

UPDATE #2: Thanks to Michael Vickers for drawing our attention to an August 2010 Alternet article that begins: “A group of influential conservative members of the behemoth social media site Digg.com have just been caught red-handed in a widespread campaign of censorship, having multiple accounts, upvote padding, and deliberately trying to ban progressives.” See, Massive Censorship of Digg Uncovered.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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