Fake News and Trolls and Bots, Oh my!
This is going to be a intermittently updated piece to help you recognize election interference, propaganda, and troll activity and give you resources to react accordingly.
In the 2016 Presidential election and primaries we experienced an utter deluge of “fake news,” trolls, and bot accounts. It was later found that there had been Russian interference in the US election and Russia concurrently rolled out their cyber-warfare division which was largely concerned with the worldwide dissemination of targeted propaganda. This has had disastrous consequences for US diplomacy, economy, and democracy and hate crimes and even disease are on a rise because of this attack, but the Trump administration has done absolutely nothing to safeguard the United States, the US Constitution, or Americans. (Yes, I’m saying he violated his Oath of Office.) Anyways, that means it’s up to us. I’m once again going to divide this post up into sections which I will list in a table of contents just below this paragraph. You’ll be able to search for the issue that is most directly pertinent to your current situation. If you have friends or family members having difficulty with technology or the news they’re receiving you can also direct them to a portion of this article. I will try to make this as user friendly as I possibly can. Additionally, this WILL be updated so if you’d like me to include something put a comment on this and given a bit of time I’ll research it, vet it and if it passes muster I’ll include it.
- Recognizing “Fake News” and how to deal with it
- How to Fact Check
- Recognizing a Troll and how to deal with them
- Recognizing Bots and how to deal with them
- Direct Personal attacks
- Threats of violence or doxxing
- Terrorist threats and how to deal with them
And that’s the skinny. Here we go.
- Recognizing “Fake News” and how to deal with it
I actually really wish the media would define the difference between Fake News and Propaganda because they are basically different things. But since they’re used interchangeably I suppose that is just detail work. But I’m all about details. Propaganda is basically government puff pieces with a clear political agenda bolstering a specific regime or decrying “enemies” of that regime. You’ll see it from time to time from Russia Today or Fox News and sometimes from the Young Turks. Fake News is news with false information posing as normal professional journalism. It’s a bit harder to spot than propaganda and therefore far more insidious. When presented with Fake News a person is psychologically less likely to reject it even when presented with facts which contradict the original lie. This means if you encounter propaganda you can probably see it pretty easily for what it is and flag it up as such and even go through point by point and refute it, but if you see Fake News you need to shut it down because it is infectious.
The easiest way to manage this is to know your sources for news. Here’s the media bias chart as of writing:
This is pretty straightforward. Someone sends you a link and you go to this chart and can see right away if you’re dealing with news, news plus, skewed opinion, or crazy. But there’s still a few things you have to be aware of and I’m going to try and get into some of that.
You’ll note there’s several publications in there which have opinion sections. OPINIONS ARE NOT NEWS. The New York Times routinely publishes opinion pieces from one author who doesn’t seem to understand that women murdered by incels are not responsible for their own murders. So if you’re reading the news section of the NYT you’re good. Generally. The NYT has its issues, but they do have a relatively high level of professionalism. If you’ve strayed into the opinion section however, prepare your spoonful of salt.
The other thing you need to note when getting your news particularly if you get your news from television is that controversy sells. In 2016 a lot of people thought Clinton was basically safe and so they piled the misogyny on her because it made for good TV. Social and civil rights failures in our country and the biases and prejudices of our society are going to be emphasized in some of the reporting even from the most factual and least partisan news sources. And also, keep in mind that this left-right spectrum of politics leaves out a lot of important detail so you can easily be reading something you think is politically safe and have it suddenly take a hard right into authoritarianism. Be an active consumer of news. If it seems like the newscaster is inserting their own opinion or if they’re interviewing a politician and especially if they pause to sell you something or you see them appearing at a political rally as a speaker rather than a journalist, take note and have your spoonful of salt.
It might seem like I’m taking shots at Fox News. I kind of am, but I don’t want to understate that this does actually happen on the left as well. First off, the entire raison d’entre for Fox News was because Roger Ailes felt that Nixon could have benefited from a partisan “news” outlet. And he wasn’t wrong. Fox News is basically responsible for the tea party movement and bears a great deal of responsibility for voter suppression, gerrymandering, and actually Trump. So, that’s not great. Fox News has incredible reach, a huge viewership, and absolutely seamless spin. It’s not surprising they’re able to effectively brainwash huge portions of the American populace.
The left doesn’t really have an equivalent to Fox News. But it does have a lot of contenders. The Young Turks and the Jacobin are two of the worst offenders. Oddly enough — and why I emphasize that political ideology is not sufficiently expressed outside of a multidimensional matrix — the diagnostic symptoms I look for to understand the bias of the Young Turks and the Jacobin are exactly the same that I use for Fox News. The Young Turks and Jacobin are openly misogynist at a level comparable to Fox News. When I realized the levels of sexism in those two publications I noped out of there because I do not consume media that likes to tell me I’m stupid and worthless just based on my junk, but from what I understand from others who have braved the waters those publications or news outlets are also racist. But while that’s all really awful, it does provide a very useful pH test as it were. Fox News, the Young Turks, and the Jacobin all engage in racist and sexist dog whistling. I’m female so the sexism leapt out at me. People of color will be able to recognize the racism.
White men (and this includes gay men) … your task is going to be a bit harder. These outlets were created with you in mind. The sexism and racism is there to confirm your bias and make you feel good. So you guys have to be super active listeners. If a news source is dismissing the concerns of everyone who isn’t white and male you may like it, but that should set off your alarm bells. The other thing you can look for is authorship. Are all or most of the contributors male? If it’s on TV what’s the relative attractiveness of the hosts? Are all the women drop dead gorgeous and the men kinda average? If that’s the case you’re being pandered to. I know it sucks because it means that you have to ask why they’re complimenting you so much and then reject the praise, but they’re doing it so they can use you.
So when getting your news as you choose I recommend reading several of the publications in the green square above. Do try to read several. If you can afford it I recommend subscribing because journalism is serious First Amendment stuff. If our country is going to pull through — and guys, our country basically has cancer right now — then good journalism is going to be part of the cure.
If you get a link from a friend and it’s from a site in one of the orange or red squares talk to your friend before you click that link and ask them why they’re sharing it. It may actually be innocent. For example, I actually do read Wonkette all the time. Because Wonkette is hilarious. I link it to my friends and my friends link it to me. I wouldn’t really characterize it as news because it’s clearly entertainment but I suppose that’s why it’s all the way in the red. It’s okay to have joy as long as you understand that that’s the point. Make sure it was your friend who sent the link and make sure they’re sending it not for an argument but as a fun little diversion.
Now …. if you get a link from a stranger or someone you’re having a political argument or debate with and the url or preview shows its from one of the orange or red sources …. just link them that chart or an updated version of it and explain that you are not going to read something with that severe a bias. They’ll be angry, but if they cannot provide a better source they’re probably trying to manipulate you and you do not have to put up with that. I don’t care if they’re your close family member or some dude you met in a chat group, your vote and your mind belong to you and if they’re not willing to play fair you do not have to put up with it.
Lastly, I haven’t mentioned youtube or Medium or blog sites. Guys, I have a Medium page. I can write and publish virtually anything I want on here. I personally try to keep it both entertaining and factual, but not everyone does. Medium and other blog or writing sites are not news sources. I ask people to link my stuff, but I’m not a journalist. I’m asking you to link it in case someone needs an argument for multidimensional politics or doesn’t understand the threat of authoritarianism or wants a simple explanation with sources as to why vaccines are hands down the best health intervention in human history. But I am not news. I’m not even fake news because I’m not news at all. So if someone links you a medium or like post and says something like, “well I bet you didn’t know THIS,” or “you’re so stupid, let me educate you,” then … no. Don’t read that. Because the likelihood of it being propaganda or fake news particularly with that sort of introduction is super high.
Same goes for youtube. I have a youtube account and at some point I’m going to make it into a channel and talk at you about some of my reading in political science and psychology and possibly even archaeology, but I could put just about anything I want up there. In 2016 during one of my check facebook after editing a chapter in science some troll linked me this ridiculously long youtube video and insisted I watch it because according to him it would totally change my opinion on Hillary Clinton. Lols. Anyways, I did actually click over to it and check what it was he sent me. It was hilarious. The thing was carefully edited clips of her speaking to cut out what she was actually saying and make it seem like she was running on a platform of roast baby meat and castration. So after flipping through it a bit (about five minutes because I don’t waste time on stupid and this thing came complete with a scary soundtrack) and seeing that it was quite literally fake news I went back and told him that what he had posted was clearly a falsified hit piece. He was furious because I clearly hadn’t watched the entire thing and because I knew the speeches well enough to know it was severely edited. I hadn’t fallen for his little trick. But the point of that kind of video is two-fold. If I had actually watched it all the way through that would have been a good half-hour of my life that I would never get back. That’s basically a lunch break if you actually take lunch breaks wasted on foolishness. But the other thing is, if I wasn’t pretty familiar with Clinton’s speeches after watching that damn thing all the way through I would have had to go look up those speeches one by one and see them in their full context. That would have been hours of my time simply to counteract a single video. So again, if an angry troll links you a youtube video and insists you watch the entire thing from start to end first off, your time is your own, secondly it’s weird if that kind of video doesn’t have ad breaks because it means dark money is in there somewhere, and thirdly, that thing is almost definitely foolishness and outright lies. If you want to watch youtube most of the major news organizations have their own youtube accounts. Watch those.
2. How to Fact Check
A lot of times fake news isn’t that easy to recognize. Local newspapers can have varying degrees of professionalism and particularly on Facebook it’s not super easy to link sites so you could hear a “fact” from someone you trust that turns out to be not so true. I recommend disregarding memes entirely. In 2016 people were linking those things as if they were vetted articles and the vast majority of them were more fictional than Game of Thrones. But, particularly for memes or one-off “facts” or newspapers you’re not familiar with or polls you’ve never heard of there’s ways of sorting out what’s what.
The easiest method is going to an actual fact-checking site. My favorite and go-to is politifacts, but I also like factcheck.org and snopes. These three are really great because they’re generally right on the ball and so if a lie or questionable fact is trending they almost always have a link to it on their front page, but if you cannot find it right away or if they haven’t gotten to it you can ask them on their site and they’ll research it for you. The reason I especially like politifacts is because they have the presidential tracker, the “truth-o-meter,” and a little free test you can use to test how accurate your knowledge of current events is. It’s actually quite fun. The Truth-o-Meter I absolutely adore though because it tracks statements from organizations, bloggers, and politicians and rates them from “True” to “Pants on Fire,” and provides descriptive statistics for each group or individual. The Washington Post also has a similar tracker with Pinocchios and has recently introduced the “bottomless Pinocchio” for an egregious lie which has been endlessly repeated. But I am partial to politifacts and I often link them. So if you want to quickly just check if something you’ve heard is accurate pop over to those sites and check.
If you find yourself with an article from a source that did not appear on the media bias chart above and you want to use it or you are questioning whether or not it’s a good source this site is useful. This is another fact checker, but it has an extra feature where you can look at actual news sources and see if they’re reliable. Since I’ve been ragging on the NYT I’ll provide a screenshot from their rating on this site to explain and you can compare it to the media bias chart in the above section.
I got this simply by googling “media bias new york times.” It’s the first result. So looking at this you can see that the NYT is rated by this site as “left-center” which gels with where the media-bias chart put it. There’s a small explanation of what precisely that means. Then if you go down to the “Detailed Report” you can see that the NYT is rated by this site as having a “high” level of factual reporting, that it is based in the US, and then you get the World Press Freedom Rank for the country. That’s from Reporters Without Borders and you want that number to be low. Below that this site will also provide history of the paper, its funding sources, and how the site arrived at their conclusions regarding the paper. So that is quite useful in determining whether or not you can rely on information from a previously unknown source.
And then there’s polls. Polls are a pain because not only is it really preferable that you have a basic understanding of statistics, but also because polls are dependent on things like demographic, wording of the question, order of questions or possible responses, and even identity of the pollster. Polls also only pertain to the moment in which they were taken. Case in point a lot of people will claim that Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician based on a poll done early in the 2016 primary season. You’ve probably been smacked with this poll at some point or another and there are detailed takedowns of it by people who understand polling better than me. (Sorry, but I’ve misplaced the links to both so if I find them I’ll post them.) But here, this is a Real Clear Politics poll which rates Trump against Sanders roughly concurrently to the other super shared poll. In April Sanders is up by well over 10 points. That’s like a political sure thing. ZOMG why didn’t we put him up against Trump IRL? Well …. it’s because of what happens throughout April and later. Sanders was up in April of 2016 because at that point people only knew what he had told them. This was before he made a series of racist and misogynist remarks, before his campaign had turned super vicious, and before his FEC violations or net worth were widely known. So yeah, in April he was legitimately pretty popular. And then he tanked. And frankly he would have flat-lined in the general because the entire purpose of Russian backed pro-Bernie propaganda was to take Hillary Clinton out of the race. Putin’s first choice was Trump, but he was terrified of one notorious HRC. That’s why Sanders was doing so well. Both he and Trump were getting a Russian boost. But had he won the nomination he would have immediately been deprived of Russian support AND the Republican media machine would have torn him apart. Basically, everything they did to Clinton they would have done to Sanders except with Sanders they wouldn’t have had to fabricate anything. Sanders would have been perfect for the Republicans because he calls himself a socialist which their voters hate and his actual voting record isn’t that liberal which Democrats hate.
The moral of this story is with polls …. read carefully. Check when the poll was conducted. Check who they polled. Check how they polled, if they did it online it might be vulnerable to hackers, if they did it by phone they’ll get older or more established people with a landline, if they did it in person or in specific areas that will also alter the demographic they got. Check the wording of the poll and if it’s multiple choice check the order of the answers. For example, if I am doing a poll to see how many people support a woman’s right to choose and I’m being neutral I would ask something like, “Do you think abortion should be, a. legal but rare, b. illegal except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother, c. illegal in all cases d. legal but not covered by insurance, e. legal and accessible, f. other please state.” If I’m being anti-choice I would ask, “Do you think women should be allowed to kill their babies,” and if I’m being pro-abortion I would ask, “Do you think women should have equal rights to life and healthcare?” I’m exaggerating a bit to make a point, but if you’re presented with either of the last two yes or no questions you basically have to either answer the way I’m leading you or sound like an absolute monster. This sort of leading questioning does happen in quite a few national polls and in fact the Trump Administration circulated a few like this near the beginning of his term and I’ve been blocked from them now because I went in and answered in essay form.
But I understand how you may not have time to do all this homework so here’s a shorthand of it. Real Clear Politics is usually a decent source. It does seem to skew a little to the right and I think that has to do with their methodology, but it’s at least a decent place to check if someone quotes you a statistic that sounds a little odd. Rasmussen is similar. It skews right but has a decent reputation. My go-to however is 538. The reason I like 538 so much is because it does really show its work, it provides charts you can interact with, and although there is commentary and analysis it’s usually pretty high on facts and low on opinion or conjecture. University polls are usually trustworthy, but all the caveats which apply for popular consumption of academic articles apply there as well. So if you’re new to statistics or really want an absolutely unimpeachable measure with no partisan extras attached go to 538. If someone’s linking you a poll read carefully.
(One last minor note. There are right now and in 2016 and in 2012 and in 2008 “quizzes” circulating online that will tell you they’re part of a poll or a study or something and that they’ll also tell you how liberal you are or which candidate you should vote for or which party you should join. THOSE ARE NOT POLLS, NOR ARE THEY RESEARCH. THOSE ARE RECRUITMENT AND CAMPAIGN ADS. You will consistently get basically the same answer regardless of what information you put in. The Libertarian Party started this nonsense ages ago to get more people to join, and several candidates campaigns have started using it as well. If you want to do it for fun, that’s fine, but it will not give you factual or unbiased information.)
3. Recognizing Bots and how to deal with them
Bots are pretty annoying, but they’re also relatively easy to recognize and deal with. First thing to understand about bots is that they’re not people. No, I’m serious. They’re algorithms and programs and accounts which are set up to just post predetermined messages when certain conditions are met. That’s all they are. Sometimes they’re foreign, sometimes they’ll be linked to a foreign country, but increasingly many of them are domestic. That said, your second indication that you’re dealing with a bot is likely going to be poor grammar, misspelled words, or weird sentence construction. If their output was pre-written by an actual person then it will probably make sense, but some of them are created so they’ll output their own content. So if things start getting really weird — as in you’re not sure what they’re trying to say — within a few exchanges, that’s likely a bot.
Your first indication though will be timing and how quickly they reply. I type obscenely fast. I have to. My PhD was about 140,000 words all told, the book I’m writing is now in excess of 100,000 words and I write these verbose Medium and Facebook posts all the time. So I am super fast. But even I am nowhere near the speed of a bot. If you are on twitter and you happen to post that bot’s trigger words it will reply near instantaneously. You can post that in the middle of the night and you will get a bot response within seconds. If you try to respond or engage with the bot it is going to keep on replying ad naseum. You. Cannot. Outlast. A. Bot. So if you posted a thing, get an instantaneous response and then either it responds to you with dizzying speed or you’re suddenly inundated with memes, that’s likely a bot.
Bots also will also appear particularly politicians’ pages or twitter feeds. Part of this is so they can block out that politician’s message with pure volume and part of that is because if anyone engages with them on the politician’s wall or feed they can be deployed to attack that account as well. The things to look for in this case are canned responses at a relatively standardized rate. For example, I like watching Nancy Pelosi press briefings. Because I’m a huge nerd. Let’s move on. I happen to watch them on Facebook. Well, if you watch a live video on Facebook you can comment in real-time. It’s up to you if you dare to do that or not. But I noticed as I was watching that people would spew hateful nonsense in that thread. Some of it is actual Americans who just don’t like Pelosi and somehow think that she’s getting this uploaded to her brain or something. But you’ll notice on those that the same set of accounts will make the same weird comment over and over and over again. For Pelosi the weird comment is some variation on “you’re drunk.” She clearly isn’t in any of the briefings, but several accounts repeatedly accuse her of that. So, I followed those comments to their account and … yeah, fake Facebook profile. In this sort of case it is CRUCIAL that you not engage with the bot because if you do unless your privacy settings are tight they will inundate your own account and wall and depending on the account they may bring a troll. And there you’ll be without Legolas or Aragorn in the Mines of Moria facing an army of goblins and a cave troll. Report the comment to Facebook and then go to the account itself and report it as a fake account, block it, and then WALK AWAY. This foe is beyond any of you. Politicians cannot block people on Facebook or Twitter or anything else but you can.
So I talked about how to recognize bot behavior but not how to recognize a bot account. On Twitter it’s going to be fairly obvious. Expect almost exclusively responses rather than any actual original material. It will follow politicians and celebrities, but not really any normal people and any followers it has will be largely other bots. On Facebook it’s a bit harder to recognize a bot account, but it’s still possible. Some bots on Facebook will be super obvious in that they have either no photo or a stock photo. They will have no friends or only friends whose profile picture is another stock photo. They will have joined facebook recently and all their posts will be really low rent memes and political disinformation. On that kind of bot you also won’t see much interaction with other actual humans.
Other bots look like they might be stolen accounts or accounts using other people’s photos. If someone on Facebook who you know and are already friends with sends you another friend request, the second account is almost definitely a fake one particularly if its using the same profile picture as your friend or one readily available on their account. Your friend might not have any idea its happening so send them a message. It’s not their fault, in fact they’re kind of the victim. Other bots will assemble bits and pieces from people on facebook to create a whole person. They’ll have only profile pictures of normal looking people, but the description of the person, where they live and what they do will be just incredibly unlikely. Again, look at what kind of things they’re posting and how much interaction they seem to have with normal people. If someone’s talking about their baby on the profile then you’re probably looking at a real account. If there’s none of that or only unanswered “wow, you tell ‘em” posts then that’s a fake account.
The last type of fake account is what I call the triggering bot because it’s not entirely a bot and triggers a troll. Triggering bots are usually actually the troll account but they set up little fishing expeditions in groups. In some cases they’re actually kind of benign. They’re just some person in Macedonia or something trying to make an extra buck with a given number of posts in American political groups. In those cases you’ll recognize them because most of their posts are just standard Facebook stuff, but not in English and then they’ll have these tailored memes or statements that appear in groups but not all that often on their actual page. Report them for the activity to Facebook, message the group admin where you found their post so that they can delete them from the group, and then block them.
The less benign triggering bots though are increasingly American or will have dedicated accounts which look and sound American whether or not they actually are. They’re slicker. They’ll post in groups and then attack if you disagree with them. It’s actually rather difficult to tell in these situations if you’re dealing with a troll or with a person who just has really obnoxious world views, but once again, look at how they argue and how quickly they respond. But we’ll cover how to recognize a troll in the next section.
4. Recognizing a Troll and how to deal with them
The first thing to remember with a troll is they’re not actually trying to change your mind. They’re just trying to make you mad and waste your time. You cannot win with a troll because they’re not playing the same game. You may be sitting there trying to do a game of go and they’re going to be moving the pieces like it’s checkers. They don’t care that it’s not actually possible to play checkers on a go board, but that’s not the point. They’re just trying to make you flip the table over. So when you realize that however you got there, you’re dealing with a troll the best response you can have is to walk away. It’s super frustrating, but walking away is the only way you can defeat a troll.
Remember my post on political correctness? I put snowflakes in there not just because a lot of liberals are accused of being “special snowflakes,” I put that in there because the term “snowflakes,” is one of the best indicators that you’re dealing with a troll. If you’re having a contentious political debate and the other guy calls you a snowflake, that guy is almost definitely a troll. In fact I’ve never seen an intelligent argument or even a non-trollish argument that involved the word snowflake. So that is to date the best way of realizing you’re dealing with a troll.
Trolls will also intentionally make sweeping generalizations, misuse words, make illogical claims, and most of them will apply all of these to you. They’ll also insult you. They’re basically trying to gaslight you into their own level of stupidity. So for example if you are a feminist or say something even vaguely feminist a troll will say something like, “you stupid man-hating c***. Why don’t you lose some weight so men can bang you.” So, let’s break that down. Firstly, if you’re talking to someone who calls you the c-word you have my permission and encouragement to calmly load them into anti-aircraft guns and shoot them into the moon. Don’t call them out on it, but if it gets to that point you are not talking to an actual real human. There may be a person typing that but they deserve absolutely zero respect. Same goes for the n-word in that context. Secondly, they’re making the illogical claim that feminists hate men. There’s no reason for you to correct them on that because no reasonable person would ever actually believe that. They’re just saying it so you’ll take the time to correct them. Thirdly there’s the implicit assumption and incorrect generalization that your reason for being a feminist is related to your ability to pull a guy. Again, it’s completely unreasonable, and they absolutely know it, but they’re trying to make you mad. Finally there’s the dehumanization or suggestion that you’re only worth what other people think of you. Now, you can be a totally confident person and just respond with, “no, sorry, but you’re entirely wrong,” but the issue with a troll is they don’t care if they’re right or wrong. They’re just there to waste your time. So if you get a comment from someone which contains any of the attacks I’ve outlined above there is no point in responding. Block, warn others, and walk away.
5. Direct Personal attacks
In gaming trolls actually sometimes do pretty funny things. Those things don’t win them any points in the game, but they prevent others from winning points. So for example, I really like Elder Scrolls Online. I won’t tell you who I am, but it’s actually pretty easy to figure out. Anyways, in the player versus player map there’s these bridges that if you fall off of them you get eaten by “slaughterfish.” Just accept that and move on. So this one player realized he or she could use a set of abilities to push or pull enemy players off the bridge into the water with them. It looks pretty irritating because he lures you onto the bridge, roughs you up a bit and then pulls you into the water with him. He sometimes dies himself, and I don’t think he gets any points for it, but that’s why he’s a troll. If it’s not being done to you it is actually pretty funny.
But trolls can be subverted. So if you refuse to play their trolly game or if you ignore them they are inevitably going to get mad. Some of this anger is — just like in the previous section — applied only to get a rise out of you, but some of it is because they’re failing at manipulating you and they’re legitimately angry it’s not working. Usually at this point they’ll call you an idiot or stupid or some variation on that theme. The attacks WILL escalate. At this point it is actually possible to reverse troll particularly if you’ve been perfectly lovely to them in the rest of the conversation, but I recommend against it. (Reverse trolling is basically just politely going, “well I can’t imagine why you would say something so clearly false.” For example, one guy tried to call me dumb by sarcastically saying I was a “real neurosurgeon.” I’m actually published in Neurology. I don’t think he’s going to ever take another shot at me after that.)
In general the thing to remember is these personal attacks are either to elicit a defensive response from you or a sign that the troll is getting desperate. If you feel up to reverse trolling them meaning if you’re okay with wasting their time and politely subverting their insults then that’s up to you. But their game is to annoy as many people as possible for as long as possible. So you have to make the calculation as to whether or not it’s worth engaging with them. For that guy in ESO, I have never seen him, but if I did I’d ride on past. Trolls can be really good at figuring out where you might be sensitive. But at the end of the day none of what they say matters. So it really sucks, but you have to just report, warn, and ignore.
6. Threats of violence or doxxing
Now we’re going to get serious. Trolls and bots are just there to waste your time and bog you down. They’re caltrops. They impede progress and you may have to do some repairs but that’s it. There is however, a much more virulent strain. In some cases you will receive threats or you may become the target of doxxing, or you may know someone who has become the target of this. Typically this technique is used by white males against women of color. The hate campaign against Bianca Delarosa is a prime example of this.
Delarosa is far left and pretty outspoken. And like a lot of people on the left she REALLY doesn’t like Bernie Sanders. Some of this is because of things Bernie Sanders has actually said and done and some of this is because of how Sanders’ supporters talk about and treat women of color …. like Delarosa. Read her stuff. She’s outspoken, but she’s less verbose than I. Anyway, I don’t always agree with everything she says because we’re not the same person, but outspoken or not she usually has a pretty good argument and like it or not she doesn’t really engage in nonsense. She swears but … that’s really the worst she’s ever done. So naturally she was banned on Twitter.
Delarosa goes by, or went by, the handle Bravenak on Twitter. And at this point some of you might be going, “oh that b****.” But the stories of her miscreancy are largely exaggerated. Here’s her in her own words on the subject. Basically, because she is a black woman, white male Berniebros had to silence her. They mass reported her on twitter and at one point they even doctored a few fake tweets, stole some of her photos and set up a fake twitter account in her name. Basically, it was white supremacy in tweet form. Essentially, if you don’t like Bravenak it’s because you have bad information or you’re one of the guys who messed with her.
There absolutely is a civil rights issue here. Delarosa was targeted because she’s black and because she’s a woman. Her speech and her anger was considered threatening to white men and so they tried to silence her. White men in general do not have to deal with this. If you’re a white man reading this, I would lay odds you’ve never had this happen to you, but if you’re a woman especially if you’re a woman of color I am almost certain it has. So for white guys … this is your chance to be allies. And for everyone else, I’m going to try and lay out how to identify this sort of thing and how to mitigate damage.
There’s different levels of threats online. If someone in a public forum tells you, “I’m going to rape the lesbian out of you,” that’s pretty violent and that guy probably should be banned from the forum, but you have to decide how serious you consider that threat. He’s posted it on a public forum so if it has his real name you can basically screenshot that and send it to the police. In those cases I do actually file reports with the police and so if those people ever try to make good on them they’ll be arrested before they get within ten miles of me. But this is because the police where I live are actually pretty trustworthy and efficient. That is not the case for a lot of Americans unfortunately. The reason I use this kind of example is because IF it’s public and IF its the guy’s real name and has a picture that probably is actually him attached you’re probably not dealing with a legitimate threat. Remember, men get to say any stupid thing that pops into their head without repercussion. In those cases do not respond, but I do recommend flagging it up to any admin, marking the tweet or post or response as violating community standards, harassment, hate speech, or whatever applies, screenshot it, document it and then block it. If you do decide to go to the police note down the context of the argument, the time and date, have the url and profile or at name of whoever it is, get an uncropped screenshot of the threat and a screenshot of their profile or twitter page. When I make these reports the police usually ask me to just forward them those details. Sometimes a police officer will come to my apartment and look at the posts on my computer. So be aware that you will need that information. You do not have to report to the police, I just do because I personally can trust those in my area. Particularly if you are black and live in Chicago, I understand how you might not want to take that step.
Now, if he’s made the same threat as above in a private or direct message to you that’s a bit more serious. I out guys when they do that. Again, take a screenshot of the DM or PM and post it to their profile or tag them in your own post and then block them. The reason I say this is that particularly on Facebook if you post something to their wall and then block them they cannot see or delete it and their family or coworkers might be able to see it. That might seem mean, but … so’s PMing people violent threats. In that case my suggestion that you file a police report gets a bit stronger. You should get all the documentation as above, and you may want to have a computer file or email file set up with a friend that just compiles threats you receive. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but you need to keep receipts. And if the sort of people who make these threats figure out we’ve got a record of them and it can all come crashing down at any moment, they’ll stop making the stupid threats.
So let’s level up the seriousness level. The above two scenarios were general vague threats. In those cases it is likely that the guy is just trying to silence you and there’s no actual teeth behind what he’s saying. To be entirely honest, most guys have more bark than bite. If they are making threats you generally don’t have anything to be worried about. But some guys are either unbalanced or egotistical enough that they might actually try to carry it through. If you receive a threat from someone who knows you, your friends, where you live or where you work, or study you need to treat that threat as a promise. That guy is likely to come after you. At that point unless you’re dealing with super dishonest cops police report, police report NOW. I’ve actually been in a situation like this and I full on slept with my sword next to my bed. Even in a case like this they probably aren’t crazy enough to actually carry through, but you never know. The other thing is if they know you and your work and your friends you probably know theirs as well. So …. tell their friends, their employer, their mom, their priest. Show everyone they know the threat they made. Some of their friends might side with them but particularly if there’s written evidence which clearly came from them a lot of people will turn them out. This will work if you’re on your own home turf. If you’re not though it is likely to ricochet simply because people know your abuser better than they know you and he may have already poisoned the water with them. (Speaking from experience here. It’s survivable but you have to cut ties pretty hard.)
That’s actually not as bad as it gets. If the threat includes your home or work address or the address of any of your relatives, if they threaten your children or any other family members, or if they threaten your place of work you have an extremely serious problem and it’s time to get out the chain-mail. In this case EVEN if the cops suck where you are zomg tell them, tell them EVERYTHING. I’m really sorry to tell you this but people can be super sick and when men try to control women the first violence they wreck is on children or pets. So if they’ve threatened your kids or your young relatives there is an absurdly high chance that it’s not an idle threat. I know it sounds insane that I’m telling you this in the context of fake news, but Berniebros actually sent threats against the grandchildren of a DNC worker in Nevada. In this case when it’s this serious you need to not only tell the police and your best friend who you’re keeping that email file with, but also any relatives who appeared in the threat, any schools, nurseries, babysitters or daycares, and …. your boss. Because this is the sort of threat that can escalate into a mass shooting. Hopefully your boss is a decent person, but if they aren’t and try to fire you because some dude threatened you then that’s a civil rights violation and you can sue.
Now, as I’ve said previously, I have received the “I’m gonna tell your boss,” threat. This is the “call the patriarchy because this woman won’t do as she’s told,” response. In that case I actually didn’t call the police and I did actually engage with the guy. I nearly even got what passes for an apology out of him. Generally, I wouldn’t engage in a game of chicken like that, but as you all know by now, I live abroad. I intentionally have not updated my profile because I don’t want my work to be associated with my politics. So not only was the only information about where I work even on LinkedIn out of date, but I listed a city that exists both in England and in the United States. Based on the way he was talking it was clear he fully believed I was in the US. So the way I talked him down was firstly I hadn’t said anything that wasn’t readily factual or defensible or even rude. I’d called him out for his rudeness towards me, but that was it. He on the other hand had posted inaccurate information and actual fake news. So, I glossed over the whole, “you don’t know where I work,” thing and asked him what about what I’d said he thought was a fireable offense. He tried to misrepresent my words. I pointed out that I had not said what he was saying I had, but that he had. Then he said I had lied. I asked him to show me where, which he couldn’t do, and then I showed him fact-check evidence and his own quotes to show that he actually had lied. Then he said I had been rude to him. I asked for an example of that in quote form and he couldn’t provide it. I then provided quotes of him being rude to me. Again, he didn’t really apologize, but he was pretty chagrin by the end of it.
Now, if you are not being threatened yourself but you are watching it happen to someone else …. step in. If you’re afraid the guy will turn on you then just anonymously report them, PM the victim and ask them how you can help. If you know the guy who’s making these threats and you can talk him down, do it. Even if it seems that the target of the abuse has a handle on it, report the abuser. Report each and every one of his comments, report his profile, and if he makes a threat take that to whatever authorities are appropriate. It is actually best if you can step up and make yourself known, because trolls thrive in one on one. If a whole group of people show up and say, “no, and we’re going to make your life miserable for trolling,” particularly if any of them know the troll in real life trolling starts to have real consequences. So white guys, if you want to play white savior or white knight … this is how you do it.
7. Terrorist threats and how to deal with them
If someone is making a credible threat to one or multiple people’s lives or safety that is a crime even if you think they won’t carry through. Report it.
If you’re not sure if it should go to the FBI you can read their guide on reporting here. But I will shorthand this for you. If you believe you are in immediate danger call 911 or if you are in the UK call 999 and in Europe call 112. Other countries and regions have other emergency numbers and they’re easily found online. Even if you think it’s probably a joke it may be wise to take it seriously. Ask yourself if you would bet your life on it just being a bad joke.
Terrorist threats as I understand them can include direct threats and planning to carry out an attack, pictures of stockpiled weapons or bomb making materials, symbols such as a Nazi swastika or confederate flag juxtaposed with either images of the intended target or human remains. In most countries it ranges from illegal to unethical to display human remains without a content warning so if you see what are clearly human remains with no context, or with for example a helmet and a gun or a racist symbol it’s probably terror related. One of the standards is a double eight. That one can appear as a tattoo and it stands for “Heil Hitler.” The Roman numerals for three can also mean “Third Reich.” If you see the “don’t tread on me” snake associated with other Nazi symbols that’s usually designating a hate group. A picture of a hood or burning cross denotes the KKK. There’s also falcon or eagle imagery that is associated with hate groups although that almost always appears with more obvious imagery. Other more recent symbols include Pepe the Frog and the Punisher logo. In those cases if it doesn’t involve an actual threat you may not want to report it to the FBI, but you can certainly flag it up to the media company you noted it on, and if that particular site or profile includes targeted hateful material you may want to report it to or contact the ACLU, ADL, SPLC, or NAACP. (The NAACP is a bit difficult to contact, but particularly around elections and other points where people of color might need more advocacy they do tend to have toll-free numbers you can call for support. In most terror related incidents the ADL and SPLC will probably be the best organizations to contact if it doesn’t reach the level where you want to contact the FBI.)
The other thing you will want to be aware of is recruiting sites. We all hear about ISIS or as they’re more correctly known Daesh recruiting frustrated young men. Well, frustrated young men are super easy to manipulate and so they are targeted for recruitment by other terrorist organizations within the United States as well. And yeah there’s quite a few. Most terror attacks and mass shootings within the United States involve a white male attacker and so-called “domestic” terrorism.
This is where the anonymity of the internet becomes problematic. Facebook purged over 500 million fake accounts in the first months of 2018. But those were fake accounts, not necessarily recruiters. And if you are looking to commit nefarious deeds on the internet even if Facebook bans you for life which I’m not even sure they do, you could just register through a different unaffiliated email. So keeping recruiters away from malleable young men is a bit like playing whack-a-mole. As that RAND article I linked above points out, a lot of people do resist radicalization, but contact with people who have already been radicalized increases the likelihood of someone joining one of these terrorist organizations.
So, there’s kind of two things to watch for. Recruitment materials will generally involve glorification of violence and death and promise a sense of accomplishment or belonging. Men and even a few women most likely to be targeted are those with a sense of relative deprivation. I’ve discussed this previously, but this is basically people who may not actually be deprived — they can actually be quite well off — but feel that they’re not doing as well as they should be. Recruiting them into an authoritarian political group or a terror group is simply a matter of exacerbating their depression and feelings of powerlessness will offering them an outside explanation for their real or perceived failings.
For example, “incel” is a term for a person — usually male although the term was coined by a lesbian describing her own difficulties in dating — who is “involuntarily celibate.” Now, we all go through sexual dry spells. (No pun intended and also, I’m sorry.) Sometimes this is because we’re not interested in sex and sometimes it’s because we cannot find a suitable partner. This is normal. But it can be quite frustrating. The thing though is that even if someone wants sex, they are never entitled to sex. Never. It does not matter how often you hit the gym or how smart you are or how rich you are, you are never entitled to sex. Even super sexy people with super sexy partners don’t have sex all the time. They just don’t. So “incels” aren’t missing out on sex at all, but they think they are. That’s relative deprivation. The issue then comes when someone says to them, “the reason you can’t get any is not your fault and not normal and it’s because women are all bad or [minority group] exists.” That’s the recruitment line for “incels.” There are two parts to it. The first part reinforces the relative deprivation, “you do deserve this thing that you want without changing yourself or your behavior and it’s weird that you don’t have it.” And the second part creates a target for hate and violence, “this group is why you don’t have what you deserve and the only way for you to get it is to kill them.”
The really frustrating thing about this is there’s not a whole lot you personally can do about it. You can keep yourself from being recruited by terrorists and if you know someone who’s being targeted by the KKK or some other hate group you can basically take them to church. But even in that case it takes a lot of energy because the terrorist group is offering them inclusion and acceptance. You have to replace that with something comparable and constructive rather than destructive. Every now and again I go online and actively search for hate group sites and recruiters specifically so I can report them. I do actually recommend more people do this because hate groups are basically cockroach infestations. You smash one and forty others eat the corpse. Online you can shut them down which will in some cases sever the connection between them and their targets. In person, it’s considerably harder. So if you do personally know someone who’s being recruited into a terror group you need to report them to authorities. It really sucks especially if they’re a family member, but you might be saving their life.
So I mentioned finding terror groups online. I usually look for right wing conspiracy theories and work from there. In my post “Very Fine People On Both Sides” I talked a bit about how “left-wing” people can also be radicalized and arguably some of those hate groups the SPLC listed are “left-wing.” But I also had the caveat that most of the hateful and violent action I saw was right wing. Bernie Sanders supporters have engaged in targeted violence and hate speech and they do have a lot of the features of the standard right-wing terrorist organizations, but they’re not quite at that level yet. So I’m quite mindful of what they’re up to because based on their increasing hateful rhetoric I think they may pass that threshold soon, but I focus my energy on outing groups that are more open about it.
Now, before you go out to fight terrorism I need to issue a few warnings. Terrorists are violent people. They may not be smart, but they are definitely violent. You cannot reason with them and you do not have the training or resources to actually fight them. They’re basically rabid dogs. It’s unfortunate because maybe they were once decent, but they’re beyond help now. This is why you want to keep people from being recruited before it happens. But to keep yourself safe you also need to know when to back off and that you should NEVER EVER EVER engage with a terrorist or someone you suspect is a terrorist. If you are trying to keep a family member or close friend from being recruited make sure you have a wide support group and that your local police know what’s going on because you are actually already in danger at that point. If you’re just online reporting these groups then report them, but do it anonymously. (Do as I say, not as I do.) Do not, under any circumstances tweet at a suspected recruiter or post on a terrorist reddit thread or in a terrorist group. I know it’s tempting but do not do it. Report them, block them, clear your browser history, and then walk away. Trolls you can sometimes engage with. Terrorists you cannot.
So with that in mind, you can of course search on super obvious stuff like the name of the hate group and just report those when you find them. But terrorists when they get reported usually have plans to find other known phrases or acronyms that their members can use to find them again when their online presence is dissolved. So with that in mind ….
Here’s some of my less obvious search strings.
“the Red Pill” (usually male supremacist groups which often advocate rape and violence towards women. It also is related to white supremacist groups and isolationist nationalist groups.)
“Follow the Rabbit Hole” (This one takes discretion, but it usually involves ridiculous conspiracies.)
“QAnon” (This is a pretty insane conspiracy theory. It’s so insane that most people even people who are super conservative do reject it. But its teeth are in that it builds on the PizzaGate conspiracy that lead to an armed attack and it also builds on several violent attacks or attempts on the lives of prominent Democrats or Democratic supporters. I don’t usually link videos, but this will help.)
“WWG1WGA” (Sounds like alphabet soup but it stands for “Where we go one we go all.” Besides needing a basic education in English grammar, groups which display this acronym are recruitment sites for the above QAnon conspiracy groups. They also advocate violence and “yellow jacket” movements. They believe in “the plan” which may or may not be another conspiracy theory created by Trump to counter the other conspiracy theory and once again probably involves killing Democrats. So that’s not great.)
“The Storm,” “The Great Awakening,” or “Future Proves Past” (These are all phrases used by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory or the WWG1WGA groups. The first one refers to a cryptic statement made by Trump which — given his personality — was probably just random words which popped into his head. The second refers to basically the conspiracy theory itself. The idea is that somehow everyone is deluded and will soon, “wake up.” The final one is mostly nonsense, but the idea is they think they’ll be proven right shortly.)
“Sons of the Republic” (There’s two versions of this from what I can tell. One’s just your run of the mill mildly offensive conservative group and the other is a violent survivalist militia type group. I don’t report the former, but the latter are a danger to themselves and others.)
“Blood and Soil” (This one’s all kinds of weird, but it just keeps on coming back. It originated in racist theory of Nazi Germany and exactly this is why Hitler was a vegan. The pseudo scientific idea behind it is that “Aryans” — although this theory misclassifies Aryans, but let’s move on — have practiced agriculture the longest — false — and are the only people in the world who can live on a strictly vegan diet — also false, but for more complicated reasons. You cannot live on a vegan diet without supplementation and if you try you’ll basically suffer the neurological degeneration Hitler did. If it were JUST a super racist version of veganism, I wouldn’t be listing it here but it also theorizes that “Aryans” are the most evolved form of people and therefore don’t need to vaccinate among other things. This one doesn’t always call for genocide, but it does flirt with that distinction and adherents of this theory often also cross over with violent male supremacy groups — long story involving menstruation — and child abuse.)
Here’s a list of hashtags I pulled from sites and groups I found with the above search strings. I’ve taken off the hashtags because I’d rather they not target me. Basically, if you see these you’re probably dealing with a terrorist recruiter.
RIC, WWG1WGA, QAnon, GiletsJaunes, YellowJackets, YellowVests, TheGreatAwakening, YellowVestsUK, gelevesjes, gelevesjesnl, gelbenwesten, GiletGialli, ChalecosAmarillos, GiletsJaunesEU, AmericanYellowVests, YellowVestsIreland, YellowVestsCanada, YellowVestUSA, TheGreatAwakeningWorldwide, HumanAwakening, JusticeForOurBoys, UnitedByYellow, JusticeForAll, QNationUS, QBrigade
This is not exhaustive at all, but if you want to do something horrifying which also helps the world you can report these groups. Every now and then I do actually find someone in these groups that is threatening specific and imminent violence rather than the more background general kind that most of these groups thrive on. If you encounter someone like that, use the FBI tip line above and if you can figure out that person’s locality and target, warn the police in that area. Once again, I need to reiterate, DO NOT engage with groups like these. Even if you think they’re borderline it’s just not worth it. Let professionals handle it. And if they are circulating violent speech or imagery, you need to not be associated with that in any way.
Take care of yourselves out there. It’s going to be rough for some time. The internet is really cool in some ways but really horrific in others. For example in the New Zealand white supremacist attacks the terrorist streamed his attack live. Google and presumably a few other companies had to then play whack-a-mole trying to remove the video from any and all platforms because people just kept on posting it after it was removed. This is why moderators for Facebook are coming down with PTSD like symptoms. This attack was particularly depraved but there are other truly awful things online that moderators have to view before they can delete. There’s not an algorithm for this and unfortunately the internet is amoral. We can do some really spectacularly great and helpful things with the internet, but it also magnifies some of our worst instincts.
So as you’re navigating the wilds of political opinion, fake news, and the bot and troll filled expanses of the social media networks remember to take care of yourself. I provided the suicide hotlines above but here they are again:
I’ve called one of these myself specifically because I was being harassed and bullied. They’re immensely helpful. Basically, you call and an operator picks up and just talks to you until you feel a bit better. They won’t pry or make you feel bad or force you to talk about things you are uncomfortable with. But it’s important to remember that what you’re feeling in this sort of situation is probably totally normal — you’re not weak or bad for feeling the way you do and it’s actually quite courageous to reach out for help if you need it — and even though it’s difficult to see there is a way out. So if you need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to call. The second link there also provides options for the hearing impaired.
I also encourage a lot of self-care and with that I have to link Audre Lourde. Women especially get so wrapped up in looking after our friends and family that we forget to look after ourselves. That will begin to wear on you. So if you need to take a moment to repair your armor …. take a moment. It’s fine. And just because people are @ you on Twitter doesn’t mean you have to read their responses or respond to them. Most of them are white supremacists anyways. I stayed up through the night on Election Day in 2016 and then I proceeded to stay up the next day trying to set up “the Resistance.” You can’t do that. I was so wired by the end I wasn’t making any sense. Fight hard, but then rest so that you’ll be ready and able to pick up that sword again tomorrow. You’re not in this battle alone.