How to spot Russian disinformation professionals, a/k/a trolls

Kurt Eichenwald, at Newsweek, has done some rightly celebrated journalism during this remarkable political campaign season.

One way to understand how solid his work has been is to know he’s being trolled by Russians disguised as regular old Amurrican folks wielding their First Amendment rights to trash him and the facts he’s presented about Donald Trump.

And Eichenwald has exposed them on Twitter:

This piece tells you: Can never tell who on social media is not who they pretend to be or whether they are Moscow.

As it happens, I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time reading comments to some of the pieces the New York Times puts online. Yeah, an inordinate amount of time and I’m trying very hard to cut down.

But–to make something useful out of this somewhat wasteful habit–I have spotted a few things about these comments:

  • Far too many of them are written under pseudonyms, with vague locations (“outandabout”, “earth”, “the new world”, “not in NY,” a couple of other planets, like that). Some of the pseudonyms are colorful–“Really???”, “Aristotle Gluteus Maximus”; “in the north woods”. What’s with the pseudonyms? In a country like ours with a strong First Amendment, using a pseudonym to praise or criticize a news article is pretentious, suggesting the mind control police are hammering at your door. (No, there are no mind control police. I can’t believe I feel the need to write that.)
  • If you aren’t ashamed of your opinions, put your real name on them. If you are ashamed of your opinions–and some of these people should be, because they are virtually fact-free and often demonstrate the commenter hasn’t even read the entire article–don’t express them publicly. Because you make me sigh. Heavily.
  • Some comments are eloquently written, maybe a bit too eloquently for my taste, but hey. Many, though, are ungrammatical, full of misspellings and typos.

But j’accuse! Some of these comments have been produced by Russian trolls. How can I tell?

  • First, the pseudonym sounds plain vanilla American. “Glenn from Kansas.” “John from NYC.” Someone’s idea of real American names, circa 1953.
  • Second, the comment is relentlessly nasty about Hillary Clinton (and yeah, I used the word “nasty” deliberately), using precisely the same words and phrases every time, cut and pasted from a template prescribed by their troll masters at–taking a guess–whatever Kremlin agency specializes in this stuff. Often the comment openly praises Bernie Sanders and accuses Clinton of the blah blah blah evils you’d expect. (I’m graciously assuming this stuff is Russian trolling and not Bernie supporters. I want to think Bernie supporters are more intelligent than to come up with stuff the Kremlin could have produced.)
  • Third, the comment does not in any way overtly support Trump. The name is not even mentioned, although once in a while someone will say, “Not that I’m supporting Trump, that horrible guy, but…”
  • Fourth, the writing is awkward English, feels like it was translated from another language.
  • And one funny little thing I’ve noticed: the word “judgment” is often used, but it is always spelled “judgement.” Now, that is the way Brits have spelled it, at least in 19th century literature, but it is not the way we spell it in the U.S.A. For me, this is almost like a political tag, a clue.

One more teensy little thing to point out: occasionally I see Trump tweets because people I follow on Twitter forward Trump’s tweets in order to comment.

One Trump tweet had the word “judgment” in it, but it was spelled “judgement.”

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