Paying trolls to skew the discussion is a growing trend today in the food industry as the organic food movement grows and the GMO labeling debate hits ballot boxes all over U.S. The Intercept, a website organized by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill that reports on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has published some of these documents – including instructions on how to be an Internet troll for corporate purposes. In 2013, Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, leaked classified documents from the NSA to the general public. Greenwald worked with Snowden and the documents to create articles based on the information they discovered, many of which, are published on the website. Snowden claims his purpose is to inform the public about issues he believes should not be classified, but the debate rages on as to whether he is a hero or a traitor as the U.S. government seeks to capture and prosecute him.
These techniques have not only been highly researched, but manuals have been created to teach them. In February, Greenwald wrote an article entitled “How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations.” The article shows detailed directions from manuals on how to discredit a person or company, and includes even more destructive practices, like leaking information, emailing colleagues, neighbors and friends, and changing photos on their social media. As chilling as it sounds, using Internet trolls to distort and reshape the conversation on food is happening all over the web today.
WHAT DOES THIS TROLLING LOOK LIKE?
As a parent, you may read a lot of blog post about unsafe foods, questionable practices by the FDA, or the effort to label GMOs. On some of these articles, you see a series of detailed comments that seem to logically question the issue at hand. These comments are sometimes respectful but often demeaning, and frequently contain links to official articles and resources that counter the author’s position. As a reader, you begin to wonder if the author, while having the best intentions, may have been duped by conspiracy theories and should not have written the article.
The problem is that perhaps you are the one being duped into believing that this is a neutral commenter. In reality, this person may have been paid by a company or organization to “take down” the author. A new era has arisen in which writers, commenters and truth seekers are being debated by hired hands whose sole purpose is to destroy the reputation and credibility of those with opposing points of view.
STRATEGIES TO DESTROY YOUR OPPONENTS ONLINE
These Internet trolls use a number of different tactics in order to keep pressure on thought leaders, journalists and bloggers when they question corporate practices and government agencies to destroy consumer trust in these articles. These techniques include:
- Spreading false or skewed information in online conversations, including social media and blog comments. Lies of omission are another popular technique here as well.
- Creating false accounts that follow food industry leaders and then generally acting unhinged as a follower of the author, in order to scare followers away.
- Agreeing with the article while displaying unstable or outrageous behavior in the comments so that real readers and commenters are scared away from following him or her.
- Creating multiple accounts to make it look like there are more dissenters than there actually are. Usually, the same person or group creates them all. Someone who is very skilled will vary the “voice” of the commenters so that they sound like different people who coincidentally just met and all agree.
- Organized, timed attacks to ruin a person’s livelihood or reputation. These can be timed with the victim’s own successes: a new commercial, a book release, a site launch, a conference, etc.
- Posting comments that claim “I am a victim of this thinking!” with details on how the author’s point of view on a topic has destroyed their lives when, in fact, these are just made up stories. Many times, the commenter will look like your average person, or a typical middle class parent.
AN EXAMPLE OF CORPORATE TROLLING
In June, Truth Stream Media published “Self-proclaimed Monsanto employee trolling anti-GMO articles, claiming organic food ‘kills people’,” which outlines the commenting tactic used on Heather Callaghan’s article, “Monsanto Teaching a Health Class In a School Near You?” published at Activist Post. Here is what the commenter posted:
As we can see, the commenter uses several tactics. First, he accuses the author of hate, and then he paints Monsanto as good guys. He tries to demolish the author’s credibility by accusing her of not understanding the facts and mocking her. Finally, he wraps his argument with an unsupported suggestion that organics kill, and then demeans the audience by calling them stupid to have read the story. He does not go any further, perhaps because the audience at Activist Post is not going to be convinced. He is simply “seeding” some negative commentary to build up a resource against the author in general.
WHO IS BEHIND THIS AND WHY?
Large-scale government organizations and corporations, like Big Agriculture (Monsanto, for example), are some of the groups behind these Internet trolls. What is their end goal? They have a few things in mind:
- Often, they seek to publicly destroy the entire reputation of the person who is trying to educate the masses. This allows them to decry that person as a fraud and to shame anyone who follows or trusts him or her. Parents trying to do the best for their family can get scared away.
- If they can’t achieve that, they can cast doubt among the followers and perhaps even turn some of those followers away from the truth. If they’re lucky, they will get followers or readers to feel like they’ve been duped and enrage them enough to switch sides and become their own spokespersons, such as recruiting unwitting parenting bloggers to support their agenda.
- If all goes according to plan, they can start an “anti” movement, with its own momentum as former followers and uncertain doubters decry the lack of “truth” in causes such as GMO Labeling and the organic food movement.
HOW MUCH A TROLL IS PAID
According to people who actually do this for a living, a low level troll can make $200 – $300 per month for 2-3 hours of work a week once they develop a routine. Higher ups have been rumored to pull in over a $1000 a month, and get perks ranging from paid vacations to event tickets. They are also required to sign confidentiality agreements, allowing the companies behind them to remain hidden.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
So how can you sort out the truth? There are a few things you can do to protect yourself.
- For starters, I would avoid reading comments until you know how to spot a troll. If the comment uses one of the techniques I’ve outlined above, be wary of anything that person has to say. The problem here is that this tactic can work both ways, and it takes a lot of experience as well as knowledge of who the leaders are in this community to sort the trolls from the honest comments.
- Secondly, know the sources you are reading. Who is the author? What is their background and education? Is their body of work consistent or are they fostering an agenda? I used to follow a certain alternative health resource, until one day it posted a very long and angry article about gun policies. For me, that shot the editors’ credibility as it was clear they had a political agenda, rather than seeking to uncover the truth.
- What sort of research and testing have they done on this topic and does it make sense? If you’re not into science, this may be a challenge, but start looking for other sources that agree with the author and discover what is behind them. You’d be surprised how often a reputable university backs up or is the source of research behind a controversial topic.
- What about their personal experiences? I’ve discovered that for me, many authors who were on one side of the fence and now on the other (for example, a former Monsanto employee who is now opposed to GMOs) are very credible, since they’ve seen up close and personal what a company is doing or how it has harmed people – or themselves.
- If a comment sounds illogical, that should be a red flag, such as “organics kill,” an idea that has no basis in science. I would immediately discredit that commenter.
Internet trolls are not just annoying people that are difficult to deal with. They can often be paid contractors or employees whose purpose is to unfairly shift the conversation to an organization’s advantage. They are dangerous corporate shills who ruin lives, careers and reputations based on falsehoods and half-truths. They are gaming your opinion to achieve their own profit motives at the expense of your right to know the truth. Most importantly, they are trying to get you to doubt your own knowledge to stop making the safe food choices you are working to make for your family and abandon the fight to promote clean, healthy foods.
Don’t give into to these Internet trolls. Keep yourself and your family safe with the tips above, and keep eating healthy!