"Eat the Cookie"

How Sunshine Could Prevent “Trolling as a Service” from Becoming Normal in Politics

  • Blog
  • January 17, 2019

By Alexander B. Howard

When Clint Watts predicted that every political campaign would have a troll farm of its own, he was being speculative. But, as is so often the case, the future is already here. American political operatives have adopted the tactics that Russian trolls used to misinform and disinform the public in elections in Europe and in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

In 2018, Watts asked if Congress would rise to stop the emergence of “trolling-as-a-service,” or accept the “dark world of predatory social media campaigning.” That Congress did not. The 116th should.

As I told Wired when the Honest Ads Act was introduced, eliminating trolls using fake accounts as a vector for disinformation wasn’t the purpose of the legislation. It would not address disinformation and misinformation campaigns that use “organic” posts and updates from fake Facebook Pages or Twitter accounts.

Here’s one way to approach the problem set that’s worth considering: extend the disclosure and disclaimer requirements in the legislation to “commercial marketing firms that provide synthetic social-behavioral marketing through paid sockpuppets, botnets, or human influencers,” as Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler recommended in a law review article that we have syndicated in this collection.

“Certainly, defamation has been used in many countries as a way of silencing the government’s critics, and the strict limits under the New York Times v Sullivan line of cases make this path appropriately difficult. But the level of bile and sheer disinformation that characterized the 2016 election is such that perhaps raising the cost of reckless or intentionally defamatory falsehood as a business model, at least, is a reasonable path to moderation of the most extreme instances of falsehood. Whether such an approach is worth the candle depends on one’s empirical answer to the question of how much of the defamation comes from fly-by-night fake news outlets, which would be effectively judgment proof; and how much comes from a core number of commercial sites that have made it their business model to sell false information and peddle in conspiracy theory.”

Alexander B. Howard is a writer, digital governance expert and open government advocate based in Washington, DC.

[Photo Credit: “Eat the Cookie” by Spyderella / Flickr]

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