Troll Watch: How To Be An Online Troll

Dec 15, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Social media has become a minefield of false news stories. Media outlets and tech companies have been struggling to give people tools to separate fact from fiction. But a couple of people have taken the issue into their own hands by developing games that show how fake news spreads as a way to inoculate people against it. We'll hear more about that as part of our regular segment called Troll Watch.

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MARTIN: NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond tried out some of the games and has this report.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Internet trolls exploit our emotions and gin up outrage with fake stories. But instead of just telling you that, what if I showed you how trolling works? I'm playing a game where the goal is to spread disinformation. My instructions arrived by text message from a mysterious contact only identified as Boss.

JARNO KOPONEN: You become an Internet troll that uses malicious memes, fake news, targeted advertising, botnets and conspiracy theories to spread fear, hate and distrust.

BOND: Jarno Koponen is the brains behind the web-based game called Troll Factory. He's head of AI and personalization at YLE, Finland's public broadcaster. We spoke on Skype. Troll Factory is sort of a choose-your-own adventure. You win by becoming the most malicious online troll. It's a simulated smartphone screen. At the top, a scoreboard counts my imaginary followers and racks up how many times my posts are shared.

KOPONEN: The better you succeed, the more influential you become in the game. So it's very literal.

BOND: My task is to whip up anger against immigrants. I'm not actually putting hateful content on the Internet, of course. But the posts and images I'm choosing from in the game are real examples from social media. I'm cautious at first, choosing posts that are provocative but not the most offensive. But I only gain a handful of followers. My boss in the game urges me to do better. So when I'm asked to exploit a real-life tragedy, I pick the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Here's my NPR colleague Eleanor Beardsley with a real report on the devastating blaze back in April.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Although Notre Dame is a Catholic cathedral, Parisians of all faiths and backgrounds embraced it. Taxi driver Bashir Arbouuli brought me to Notre Dame this morning. This Muslim, who's originally from Tunisia, says he can hardly bear to look at Notre Dame today.

BOND: But in the game, the fake story I post claims that Muslims celebrate it as the church burned. Of course, that's not true. But I realized that the more I dial up the outrage, the more successful I become as a troll. The fake story really gets things going. My score surges. When I finish the game, I've hit 1,500 followers. They shared my post 14,000 times. I win the title director of disorder. But it makes me wonder - isn't it wrong to expose people to such hateful material, even if it's just a game? Koponen says that showing people how fake news spreads can make them more skeptical in real life. And there's evidence supporting that.

SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: Maybe when you inject people with a small dose, a weakened dose of the fake news, people can build up cognitive or mental antibodies and become more resistant to it.

BOND: That's Sander van der Linden. He's a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. We also spoke on Skype. As a research project, he and his colleagues made their own game called Bad News. Here, too, players post conspiracy theories and memes to gain followers. More than a million people have played the game, and the researchers found it helped. Van der Linden says that after players use the tools themselves, they were more likely to say fake news was not reliable.

VAN DER LINDEN: So that, then, when we go out in testing phase and expose people to, you know, a range of fake news, they're going to be inoculated because they can spot the techniques embedded in fake news articles.

BOND: Fake news and trolling are proving hard to stamp out entirely from social media. These experimental gains suggests that increasing our own resistance could be a better solution.

Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.