Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
Instead of bolstering Russia’s fierce image as world power, its attempt to take Ukraine did the opposite. In fact, a series of disastrous campaigns demystified its invincibility, and within months, the Russian bear became the Russian teddy bear. Russia was simply caught off-guard and unprepared, with its army at disarray, and the equipment in wrecks. But equally a failure is its army of online keyboard warriors, the infamous Russian trolls.
Online trolls hired by Russia gained notoriety when they meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It was suggested that they handed Trump his victory, and a so called “farm” was discovered in a country somewhere in West Africa. And when Russia initiated its campaign to “save” Ukraine from what it claimed as “Nazis”, the trolls are back in action. Their missions vary, from glorifying the Russian invasion, spreading disinformation about the war, slandering Ukraine and its president, and posting anti-west propaganda. Russia needs to gain support, and that’s what the trolls are all about. Russia must appear as an almighty savior of the world against the evils of western influences.
But the result is as bad as Russia’s battlefield performance. In fact, their attempts to troll an increasingly weary, skeptical and suspicious western netizens are turning comical. And the bitter truth here is that noisy trolls cannot save the Russian soldiers from defeats in Ukraine.
Whenever a legit news agency, or even common pages post reports regarding the war in Ukraine, they will show up. Some have real profile photos, and well-maintained social media accounts. Others uses shoddy profiles generated by specialized apps. Nevertheless, they will post anti-Ukraine propaganda, while some will go as far as spreading fake news. There are also pages dedicated to spreading pro-Russia rhetoric, with contents coming from Russian state media. The thing here is that trolls must manipulate public sentiments, by steering attention towards more favorable opinions. This worked well in their disruption of the 2016 election, while such tactic of “brigading” is probably derived from social media campaigns of groups like ISIS terrorist network.
Upon observation, people noted that the majority of pro-Russian accounts have African sounding names. This seems to support the discovery of a Russian-led troll farms in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, though accounts from other nationalities are also common. In some cases, Filipino made social media accounts are seen making pro-Russian sentiments in the comment section.
But critics pointed out that Russia is better off spending its budget on training and weapons for its boots on the ground. What the situation in Ukraine brought out is that fighting wars is not presidential election.
But War is Not Presidential Election
Trolls are seen as plagues in the free world for a good reason. They became the instruments of despots for controlling opinions, by simply manipulating free speech rather than restricting it. It helped affect the outcomes of the 2016 election, and the same troll tactics secured the victories of a questionable presidential candidate somewhere in Southeast Asia. The proven power of troll farms is then applied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but would they yield the same results?
The first thing to consider here is that fighting wars is a completely different playing field. In presidential elections, people’s choices matter. And candidates will then resort to their trolls to influence such choice. But in the battlefield, propaganda is just part of the toolkit. Real weapons, tactics, manpower and machines mattered more. Manipulating reality is also harder in wars, especially in the age of social media. The skills of the trolls and the quality of the post they make are also crucial in wartime propaganda.
And this is where the Russian troll-farms failed.
For one thing, the discovery of troll farms, and the confirmation of their existence made some people weary of posts, comments, even the commenters, thought gullible people who would lap any troll-based propaganda always exist. And based from the posts they make; the problem is in the trolls themselves.
Just put it this way. Fooling someone is harder if they already know. Trolls bend reality through insults, fake news, intimidation and other propaganda tools. Doing such is easy in presidential election, where truths are easier to hide. But in wars, especially in the age of internet, hiding the truth is almost next to impossible. Simply, the destructions, casualties, human costs, not to mention war crimes are too obvious to hide. The speed of information from warzone to news are too quick for the trolls to handle, while the trolls themselves lacked the capacity to stop real time surveillance equipment. As what happened when satellite imageries uncovered traces of Russian soldiers’ atrocities. Up to now, the troll farms still failed to bend the majority of public opinions regarding the Russian soldiers’ war crimes.
Making the Russian forces look good is also a challenge for the troll since war began.
Trolls are resorting to stock footages, spliced videos, and made-up articles to present a victorious Russian army. Whereas in real life, the Russian forces in Ukraine is so badly damaged and stretched that Putin is sending out reserves. They even stole videos of Ukrainians destroying Russian tanks, and sell them as “Russian armies, destroying Nazis”. But the way Kremlin made indirect admittance on the blunders of its forces just made it harder for the trolls to hide the truth.
But perhaps the problems are on the trolls themselves. Again, maybe because of the difference in playing field, whereas spreading propaganda in wartime calls for different sh*tposting skills. But my friends noted that English is just the second language of the trolls, who came from mostly African nations. Some can’t even speak proper English, and any brigading attempts with broken English ended up in disaster. The contents they post are also laughable and badly edited.
And people love these trolls, for being easy to burn.
The language factor of mostly non-English speaking troll made it hard for them to make a defense when challenged. In one case, a friend basically “trolled the troll,” when he openly ridiculed the poor fellow for being a Putin lapdog. And all the troll did was mumble before blocking my friend.
No Tactical Advantage
The Russian trolls that made a noise in 2016 is now in the losing end. They failed to stir public opinions in Russia’s favor, while making stupid mistakes of their own. With nothing but misinformation and sh*tposting to sustain them, a bitter truth sets in for the Russian forces. The trolls gave them no significant tactical advantages. They never won Russia any cities, or helped them get Kyiv. What they did is make the Russian army, themselves, and their leadership look like even bigger clowns than Zelensky.
In the other end of the spectrum is Ukraine, winning even in social media. From the Ghost of Kyiv, to its tractors pulling tanks.
1. Hern, Alex and Harding, Luke (13 March 2020). "Russian-led troll network based in west Africa uncovered". The Guardian.
2. Rawnsley, Adam (04 August 2020). "Russia’s Infamous Troll Farm Is Back — and Sh*tting the Bed". Rolling Stone.