Help Wanted: Anti-Trolls for the Job of Stopping or Slowing Our Nation’s War against Itself

Julie Hotard
8 min readSep 19, 2018

Molly McKew’s recent article made good points about Russian trolls on social media, and about the Russian propaganda practice of getting on both sides of many political issues on social media, trying to foment conflict between groups.

“Putin’s goal isn’t a puppet president so much as a U.S. society permanently at war with itself.”

Can you see happening on social media, where Trump supporters and Resistance folks argue? And Leftist Democrats attack centrist Democrats and vice versa.

That latter example is a Divide and Conquer strategy to divide the Left. This is incredibly harmful, because it will take united strong Left to combat the Right Wing agenda and Trump. Divide and Conquer was likely being done already by Right Wing trolls, even before Russia entered. The fact that the U.S. already had a vast successful Right Wing propaganda network made it highly convenient for any foreign governments who wanted to tag along, simply adding their own propaganda to the mix.

How do we deal with this?

The most important thing Democrats can do now is to Get Out The Vote. This is best done by contacting likely progressive voters — not Trump voters. It’s probably most effective to contact potential voters in person.

This is how Julia Salazar’s highly successful campaign for the New York State Senate did it.

“In all, 1,883 volunteers signed up for 4,663 canvassing shifts. Over the course of the campaign, supporters knocked on over 120,000 doors and had conversations with over 10,000 voters. That was a huge increase from the El-Yateem and Brisport campaigns, during which NYC-DSA knocked on about 20,000 doors for each.”

Most Trump supporters seem to me to be unreachable, although a few do change their minds. However, if you are one of the very few people who has been able to convert Trump supporters to progressivism, please don’t let me stop you. What I wrote here is for the other 99.9% of us.

Other groups of people seem more likely to vote for Democrats, for example people who were formerly nonvoters. Some of them may be willing to consider progressive values and vote for candidates who espouse them. Here’s a great book on talking about and listening to political values, to understand and/or influence people.

Social media is not as important in Get Out The Vote efforts, as in-person or phone GOTV. Still, we could stand to have some anti-trolls standing up for truth on Twitter and other social media, to counteract the influence of both Russians and Right Wingers like Cambridge Analytica. They wouldn’t be swarming all over social media like bees, if it didn’t work. It would be good to have some form of resistance against these swarms.

So would you like to apply for this volunteer job, as an anti-troll?

The biggest verbal war I see on social media is between Leftist and centrist Democrats. It’s also the most important one because it keeps Democrats from being united. That’s why this particular conflict is the one where the nation most needs the services of anti-trolls.

I have participated in this conflict. It’s frustrating. I am learning some things from it. Feel free to put in the comments anything you have learned in such discussions.

It’s a formidable challenge, to act as a constructive anti-troll. The hardest part is trying to keep from getting distracted by all the lies and insults. One really needs to ignore them and have a laser focus on GOTV.

We may have to resign ourselves to allowing some people to keep believing lies. At some time in the future, maybe we can try to set people straight on what the truth is about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and other past candidates, and about policies that have been enacted or proposed at previous times in history. But the time isn’t now. Right now, we either focus on GOTV and do that — or else we die as a democracy — or at least continue to hover near death.

People believe many lies because we’re well immersed in Right Wing propaganda. Many Right Wing media outlets contain nonstop propaganda. Although mainstream media contain far more truth, they also contain a fair amount of propaganda.

Propaganda works so well in the U.S. that it got Trump elected, along with the GOP Congress, mostly GOP governors and mostly GOP dominated state legislatures. It’s been so effective that we can’t expect to talk people out of believing it. It’s good we don’t need to.

The only thing that matters significantly now is whether enough of us vote for Democrats for Congress in November. If enough do, we’ll have some power to lessen the damage Trump does and perhaps to impeach him.

Below is a standard message that I’m tweeting to different trend lines on Twitter. Feel free to join me in tweeting this or a similar message if you like.

“People on this thread, R U going to get out 2 the polls & vote 4 Dems in Nov. or not? That’s what really matters. All else is comparatively inconsequential, despite ppl loving 2 feud on Twitter.”

Here’s another one of the tweets I’m tweeting to different groups of people.

“I’m voting for Dems in November because I care about democracy. Is there anyone else here on this TL who cares about it? Or are you all Russian citizens?”

It’s hard to calm down when my feelings get hurt, and to tweet on. It’s hard not to get distracted by the insults people throw at me, the lies they believe, and the misconceptions they hold. But Hillary Clinton is not going to run again. And even if Bernie runs, he won’t likely win the nomination because of his age. So it makes little difference what people believe about either of them currently.

Here’s one reason why current propaganda has been so effective. It aims at tribal urges. Humans are tribal. We feel bonded to our tribal leaders. It hurts me when someone insults or believes lies about someone I respect as a valuable leader. And it hurts others when I say negative things about their own tribal leader — especially if my statements are true.

It also hurts people when they are accused of believing lies or propaganda — especially if they ARE believing it. They feel insulted, as if believing propaganda means they are stupid or are fools. However, plenty of smart people believe propaganda.

It’s important to focus on the lie that matters. The lie that matters is that one shouldn’t vote.

Remember: Everyone wants to feel good about themselves and usually tries to, even if it means believing lies. Emotional needs win out as more important than truth for humans, almost every time. So we need to allow people to keep feeling good about themselves, even if it means we fail to correct lies right away, in order to have any chance of persuading people to get out and vote for Democrats in November.

We don’t have to agree with lies, but not every lie needs to be pointed out, and not every truth needs to be told immediately. The goal of GOTV needs to take priority. All else is distraction.

Of course, we still need to correct lies most of the time, whether on social media or elsewhere — particularly about current events. It’s just in this particular instance, of trying to convince Leftist Democrats to vote for Democrats who are running in November, that it would be better to let people hold onto their tribal beliefs about past candidates and policies. I’ve read tons of Twitter trend lines and I’ve never seen anyone let go of such beliefs once. For example, I’ve never seen anyone convince anyone that Bernie wouldn’t’ve won or that Hillary Clinton was a good candidate.

If enough people can be persuaded to vote Democrat in November, that doesn’t matter much.

Would you like to become an anti-troll? Job applicants will need patience, nerves of steel, an ability to laser focus on Getting Out The Vote, and an ability to ignore distractions. They’ll need calmness under fire — emotional self control while being insulted & being argued against by people who believe lies and have misconceptions. So obviously only a tiny percentage of people on social media can qualify for this job.

Can you ignore an insult and not insult back? Can you ignore lies and misconceptions about your favorite political leader? Can you control the urge to correct the lies and misconceptions — and instead show a laser focus on trying to persuade people to get out to the polls and vote Democrat in November? I think that is the kind of control and focus that is needed to be a successful anti-troll. It’s rare, and we may not be able to do it perfectly every time. But if we are willing to practice, we can improve over time.

A long term perspective will be necessary. You may not be the one to persuade a person to get out to the polls and vote. They may have to hear this suggestion 50 or 100 times before they seriously consider on it and act on it. To do this, you have to be willing to be Persuader #1 or Persuader #53, out of the 100 it takes to get results. So you will likely not get to see the results of your efforts.

Repetition is needed because that’s one way persuasion works. Right Wing and Russian trolls use repetition. They have told people on Leftist Twitter tens of thousands of times by now. that Democrats are corrupt, stupid, weak etc., not to vote for Democrats except those who are socialists, and that voting doesn’t matter. They’ve told Leftist tweeters that there’s no good reason to vote unless one can get 100% of what they want from a candidate. So, if we want to compete with those messages, we will have to repeat our own message many many times.

A couple more ideas came from this article below.

One is to have our own positive narrative that will “tell the story of who we are and why we are doing what we are doing” — e.g. to increase equality of opportunity, justice, democratic processes, and access to affordable health care.

The above article points out that “Lies are intended to serve the meaning and identity goals of a hostile power, and we defeat that power, not by recourse to the truth… but it is the meaning of the truth and lies that the narrative must tell. We need to go after adversarial attempts to project meaning and undermine it with our own narrative.”

Therefore, instead of telling people their beliefs are propaganda, which doesn’t usually help, we may consider asking “Who do you think benefits from your not voting and your belief that voting doesn’t change anything?” That way, it’s possible that they might realize that this belief serves powers like Russia, Right Wingers and Trump. Republicans do tend to win when voter turnout is low.

There’s no pay for the job of anti-troll— at least not in money. But those who take the job as volunteers will have the undying gratitude of all the sane people in our country, when we get our democracy back.

Those are some ideas on how anti-trolls could work on social media. If you have any ideas about this, please post them in the comments section below.