Disinformation Part 1: How Trolls Control an Internet Forum

An Insider’s Guide to Online Disinformation

Trolls
You have probably met these people online. Photo credit: Tristan Schmurr / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You may well wonder about the material we have chosen to present below.  For one thing, it has been around for a while, though mostly on obscure websites. For another, its authors are unknown. More important, we cannot say how accurate, overall, is the analysis offered in it.

Nonetheless, it is tantalizing — and raises some important issues, no matter its provenance.

The document claims to reveal the techniques — dirty tricks, really — that are practiced by trolls, saboteurs, provocateurs, disinformants, spies and other government operatives, as well as their fellow  practitioners of the dark arts.

One thing is certain: we’ve all experienced the frustration of dealing with this phenomenon. We just don’t always recognize it for what it is.

Without even knowing it, you may have witnessed these techniques in action. Perhaps in a political forum that feels somehow manipulated to suppress certain facts and points of view. Or in the deceptive comments that often follow a controversial article. Or in the disruptive behavior at a town hall meeting that seems oddly choreographed. Or at a meeting of activists where the “wrong” people seem to be taking over.

Like toxic mushrooms, the words and actions of these operatives can look harmless. That is why they can so easily poison the well of information.

You may be tempted to write off trolls as harmless nuts, but that may not be the case at all. We know from experience that some of the less harmful techniques described here are a cousin of a PR tactic called “astroturfing,” a tried and true method of some of the most powerful corporations and private interests in America. It is a classic control technique, wielded by those on top to prevent “inconvenient” facts from reaching the public, and to neutralize any action the public may want to take should they learn of these facts.

You are most likely to see these techniques at work where discussion centers on such high-stakes issues as political assassinations, the destruction of land and lives by oil companies and other corporations, the man-made causes of climate change, and so on.

Before we get to the tricks themselves, we should take a quick look at their origins.

Origins

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Treachery is as old as mankind, but let’s start with the late J. Edgar Hoover, the old trickster behind the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, also known as COINTELPRO.

According to www.publiceye.org, Cointelpro was designed to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” inside the Communist Party U.S.A…. disruption of the Socialist Workers Party (1961), the Ku Klux Klan (1964), Black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam (1967), and the entire New Left, including community and religious groups (1968).”

The US Senate’s so-called Church Committee (chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho), which investigated Cointelpro, reported, “Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power.” Such targets included nonviolent citizens against the war in Vietnam, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and prominent civil rights workers.

The FBI claims Cointelpro operations ended in 1971.

Did they? The Internet did not exist during the period the FBI admits Cointelpro was active, but the author labels the methods described below as “Cointelpro Techniques.”  Wherever they came from, they are still clearly in use. (As many of our readers probably know, other alphabet agencies use these techniques, and have greatly expanded upon them.)

Part 1 is about methods for taking control of a news group. These instructions were presumably written by a Cointelpro operative to be used by other operatives — and not the general public, so they are not always clear. We have therefore rewritten some of these passages, and we offer explanations parenthetically when we think they are needed. Wherever possible, we try to preserve the style of the original document.

If you have a better explanation for any of the actions described below, or if you want to add your own observations to this ongoing collection, please let us know. We would love to hear from you.

The bottom line: Our purpose here is to inform you about some of the “dirty tricks” that may be shaping and distorting what you read online. Far from endorsing these attempts to hijack free and open discourse, we believe that exposing them can help blunt their power to confuse and control. Forewarned is forearmed.

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Note to readers: The following is the text found on the Internet, as discussed above. The source and background are unknown. 

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Cointelpro Techniques for Control of an Internet Forum

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There are several techniques for the control and manipulation of an internet forum. Most involve dilution and misdirection. We will go over each technique and demonstrate that even a minimal number of operatives can eventually gain control of an “uncontrolled forum.”

“Forum Sliding”

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If a very sensitive posting of a critical nature has been posted on a forum, it can be quickly removed from public view by “forum sliding.” This maneuver brings unrelated postings to the top of the forum, and the critical posting “slides” down the front page — out of public view. [Ed.: By“sensitive posting of a critical nature”, the author refers to comments that include facts that interfere with the false narrative being promoted.]

In this technique a number of harmless posts are quietly pre-positioned on the forum and allowed to “age.” This is done in anticipation of troublesome postings. Each of these misdirectional forum postings can then be called upon to trigger a “forum slide.”

Several fake accounts should be ready when called upon. To trigger a “forum slide” and “flush” the critical post out of public view, it is simply a matter of logging into each account, both real and fake, and then ”replying” to pre-positioned postings with a simple one- or two-line comment.

Although it is difficult or impossible to censor the unwanted posting, it is now lost in a sea of unrelated and useless postings. This effectively focuses the attention of forum readers on non-issue items.

Inoculating the Public Against the Truth

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A second highly effective technique is what we call “consensus cracking.”

Here’s how we develop a consensus crack: Under the guise of a fake account, a posting is made which looks legitimate — but the critical point is that it has very weak back-up. [Ed.: We assume this counterfeit posting contains some of the same points being made by those attempting to reveal the truth, but in a weaker form. Think of it as an “inoculation.” ]

Once this is done, then, under alternative fake accounts, a very strong position in your favor [Ed.:“your” meaning the disinformant’s favor] is slowly introduced over the life of the posting.

It is imperative that both sides are initially presented, so that uninformed readers cannot determine which side is the truth — but assume they have seen all the relevant facts on both sides of the issue.

As postings and replies are made, the stronger “evidence” or disinformation in your favor is slowly “seeded in.”

Thus, uninformed readers will most likely accept the disinformation. But even if they don’t, they will probably drop their opposition to your posting.

However in some cases where the forum members are highly educated and can counter your disinformation with real facts and linked postings, you can then “abort” the consensus cracking by initiating a “forum slide.”

Turning a News Group into a Gossip Corner

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Topic dilution is not only effective in forum sliding it is also very useful in keeping the forum readers on unrelated and non-productive issues. This is a critical and useful technique to cause a “resource burn.”

By implementing continuous irrelevant postings that distract and disrupt the forum readers, they are effectively prevented from being productive. If the intensity of gradual dilution is great enough, the readers will stop researching and simply slip into a “gossip mode.”

In this state, they can be more easily misdirected away from facts. The less informed they are, the easier it is to control the entire group in the direction you desire.

It must be stressed that a proper assessment of the psychological characteristics and levels of education of the group are first determined. You don’t want to “drive in the wedge” too soon. By being too far off topic too quickly it may trigger censorship by a forum moderator.

Collecting Information on Forum Members

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This is about determining the psychological level of the forum members, and to gather intelligence that can be used against them. In this technique, a light and positive environment is created, leading to “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours” postings. From the number of replies and the answers that are provided, much information can be gathered.

For example, posing as one of the forum members, post your “favorite weapon” and then encourage others to showcase theirs. It can then be determined what percentage of the forum community owns a firearm, and/or illegal weapon.

Or, post your favorite “technique of operation.” From the replies, methods used by the group can be studied, and effective methods developed to stop them from their activities.

Identifying Violent Forum Members

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Statistically, there is always a percentage of forum posters who are inclined to violence. In order to determine who these individuals are, you present an image that will incite a strong psychological reaction.

For example, post a link to a video depicting a local police officer grossly abusing his power against a very innocent individual. Statistically, of the million or so police officers in America there is always one or two being caught abusing their powers, and the taping of the activity can be then used for intelligence gathering purposes — without having to stage a fake abuse video. [Ed.: Interesting choices of word in this paragraph. “One or two” being caught?  We know these instructions were written before so many instances of abuse were recorded. Maybe the emphasis was on “being caught.”] 

This method is extremely effective, and more so if the police officer can be made to look even more abusive, by the way the video is introduced, and by selective editing.

Sometimes it is useful to “lead” the forum by replying to your own posting with your own statement of violent intent — that you “do not care what the authorities think!”

Showing no fear may get those forum members who are more silent and self-disciplined to slip — and post their real intentions. From this, the most violent in the group can be effectively singled out for reverse IP location and possibly local law enforcement tracking. And his or her posting can be used later in a court of law during prosecution.

Gaining Full Control

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It is important to continuously maneuver for a forum moderator position. Once this position is obtained, the forum can then be effectively and quietly controlled by deleting unfavorable postings — and one can eventually steer the forum into complete failure and lack of interest by the general public.This is the “ultimate victory.”

Depending on the level of control you obtain, you can deliberately steer a forum into defeat by

censoring postings, deleting memberships, flooding, or “accidentally” taking the forum offline. By this method the forum can be killed.

However it is not always in the interest to kill a forum as it can be converted into a “honey pot” gathering center to collect and misdirect newcomers and, from this point, be completely used for your control for your agenda purposes.

Conclusion

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Remember: these techniques are only effective if the forum participants do not know about them

Once they are aware of these techniques the operation can completely fail, and the forum can become uncontrolled. At this point other avenues must be considered such as initiating a false legal precedence to simply have the forum shut down and taken offline.

This is not desirable as it then leaves the enforcement agencies unable to track the percentage of those in the population who always resist attempts for control against them.

Many other techniques can be utilized and developed by the individual and as you develop further techniques of infiltration and control it is imperative to share them with HQ.

Part 1 is available here.

Part 2 is available here.

Part 3 is available here.

Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Fremont Troll (Sue / Flickr - CC BY 2.0)

Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Fremont Troll (Sue / Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

Selective List of Related WhoWhatWhy stories:

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Why We Should be Thankful for the Cold  (Not related to Cointelpro, but listed because of the disinformation deposited in the Comments following the article.

Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev a Double Agent Recruited by the FBI?

FBI Sat Back While Snitch Directed Cyber Attacks and potentially Entrapped Others

The Mystery of the Constant Flow of JFK Disinformation

FBI Uses Counterterrorism Authority to Infiltrate and Surveil Peaceful Protests… Again

WHYTV -The FBI, Blacks,and Cointelpro,

William Turner: From G-Man to Newsman

Tribute to the Man Who Exposed the Pentagon Papers

Jeb Bush Family Values: Meth and Dirty Tricks

The US Left: A Short Introduction

The Deaths of JFK, RFK– and the Silence of the Lambs

TVWHY: Russ Baker in St. Paul, Excerpt 1- Troublemakers


Related frontpage panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Fremont Troll (Sue / Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

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18 responses to “Disinformation Part 1: How Trolls Control an Internet Forum”

  1. Anthony Cavanagh says:

    Seems like a lot of hard work. I feel sorry for those, who are called trolls. They seem sad , lonely and bitter about life.

  2. Tom Anderson says:

    There’s a big story out there for whoever wants to investigate the cointel that went into the recent election.

  3. Nancy Madore says:

    I’m always wary of posters who remain anonymous… they often have something to hide.

  4. jane says:

    I’d fully expect right wing astroturfers to be the very first people to claim their views are underrepresented and or censored. For these guys anything less than 100% agreement with their views apparently amounts to a conspiracy by the left, which to them, justifies their using all the above methods to ‘retaliate’. Nonetheless, the fact remains that all the known astroturfing services to have have been exposed cater to corporations with dodgy ethics, or people who already in power in government. Their feeling of being stifled or underrepresented stems from nothing more than an inflated sense of entitlement, which they are willing to pay trolls to enact in forums and comment sections. This is a fact. Another fact is that identical comments to those below have clogged up comments sections on any site that talks about astro turfing-there could hardly be a more “case in point” demonstration of the fact such operations actually exist.

    In other words, all the posters who have written in crying “political correctness” have outed themselves. I suggest keeping an eye on their comments to see what subjects they’re most interested in, since this should give an idea who their paymasters might be.

    On the bright side, new programs are now being written that can detect astroturfing so I expect the industry’s days are limited.

    • drpepper70 says:

      I think the problem is that people are afraid of the truth and when it doesn’t agree with them, they want to censor it. The constitutional center does not want to censor people. So…

  5. Jay_Sherman says:

    Most forums these days don’t even need a government disinformant to effectively control and silence anyone who posits a non-mainstream idea or kernel of truth, because most forums practice censorship- and the standards used to determine who and what gets censored, are the tenets of the religion of political-correctness. Since the majority of people have been indoctrinated into this religion via the media and government education, it is a given that most forum owners practice it, and have no problem finding moderators who share the faith- so now the government can just sit back and relax, as the peons do what they were programmed to do- and you virtually never even hear so much as a grumble about free-speech, because such values have been eradicated from modern (un)consciousness by the purveyors of the PC cult.

    Those who do not love and strive for freedom, will lose it.

    [PLEASE NOTE: My comment above is reference to internet forums in general, and is NOT intended as a critique of THIS forum- as this is my first visit to this forum, and am not even familiar with it’s policies regarding censorship/moderation.]

    • Frank von Winkhorst says:

      This goes way beyond political correctness. Even suggesting that climate change is a normal, historically repeated process, on the Oregonian website leads to one’s posting being deleted. This goes for anything suggesting that the liberal power structure was decapitated by the right in the 1960s or that the Malheur occupiers may not have been completely crazy and that the FBI has a history of false narratives and constructed events. At that point, one is inundated by a wave of ad hominem attacks. Ironically enough, one is labeled a “troll” by the very trolls that control the comments section. Interestingly enough, the Oregonian is owned by a conglomerate run by friends of the Bush family, so that their purported liberal bias can be seen as a way of containing the opposition’s power without making it obvious to the casual reader.

    • Jay_Sherman says:

      I had an internet stalker a while back on a local forum, who was trying to discredit and harass me- I do believe that they could have been an operative, because the amount of time they spent on that task was just too much for a regular person- e.g. they’d find stuff that authored from around the web, in some cases from more than 10 years ago, and under various user names- and it’s hard to believe that anyone -even a welfare recipient- would have the time to do such in-depth sleuthing, or the ability.

  6. JdL says:

    The author lost all credibility with me when she referred to “the man-made causes of climate change”, as if it were an established fact rather than the fantasy of half-wits.

  7. joe mcivor says:

    “These instructions were presumably written by a Cointelpro operative to be used by other operatives ” They could also have been posted to the “obscure websites” mentioned by a troll to establish his/her anti-State credentials .

  8. stevor says:

    I saw a regular group of trolls on McClatchy news and when I posted the truth, they (probably using multiple log-ins) would click on the button to have my comments deleted. Then there is the common attack of saying “you need to take your meds” or something about wearing a “tinfoil hat”. If that doesn’t work, they frequently call names and/or use profanity to intimidate anybody.
    On some sites, I called a person out as being a troll and then a “regular” to the site confirmed it.

    • Frank von Winkhorst says:

      Yes, the tinfoil hat and taking-one’s-meds attacks are common and classic. These folks are totally lacking in creativity if nothing else. The CIA term “conspiracy theory” is also bandied about. These fall under the rubric of ad hominem arguments. They result from either a lack of hard evidence on the part of their purveyors or simply laziness to the extent that they don’t even bother to present the widely distributed misinformation. And yes, this applies to “liberal” forums as much as it applies to “conservative” forums, though, as I have pointed out elsewhere, many of these liberal forums are controlled by conservative owned publications. As the old saying goes, “keep one’s friends close, but keep one’s enemies closer.”

  9. Mr Worthington says:

    Wow. Bravo WWW. One of my favorite articles that you guys have done yet! looking forward to parts 2+3.

    One thing sticks out in my mind: the Reddit politics section. It is so terrible and impossible to post anything there, I haven’t looked at it in years.

  10. MrE23 says:

    Can’t believe you didn’t call out and highlight this: “and the taping of the activity can be then used for intelligence gathering purposes — without having to stage a fake abuse video”

    Which implies that there are cases when the production of fake videos is seen as a legitimate and useful tactic.

  11. planckbrandt says:

    The other place these techniques emerge is discussions about the money system and the nature of money itself. The Arthashastra by Kautilya, a how to guide book written by the Machiavelli of India, shows all these techniques. They were used back then in real life. But, the techniques and goals are the same. Reading Kautilya exposes these divide et impera techniques and can blunt their power. They can help us recognize them more widely, such as in the Whowhatwhy article about New Perspectives on King and that Col Gale person.

  12. johnpotash says:

    I’ve seen trolls act in groups of three in an activist group in which I was involved. Each took a role, one comic, one extreme in opposite view of leftist members of group and one pretending to be moderate, but all supporting each other. In other forums I’ve seen this play out too, without the particular political spectrum slant, but just in opposition to someone putting an alternative view out there with a lot of evidence to back it up.