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Beware the Russian trolls’ invasion by social media


Take novichok bitch, monkey brain, die!

It all began with a Twitter discussion about the British bombing of Dresden. I said it was a good thing that the firestorm allowed the diarist Victor Klemperer and his wife to remove their yellow stars and escape deportation to Auschwitz. In response I was hit by a load of ‘facts’ about the evils of the raid, and others joined in with graphics showing Tokyo flattened by American planes. I could see a theme emerging: hatred of the West.

In another discussion I mentioned the Nazi destruction of Warsaw, calmly observed by the Soviet army from the banks of the Vistula. That received a description of how the Soviets wisely refused to assist the Poles in their ‘reckless’ plan to liberate themselves, and how the Russians were later able to do it for them in a proper planned manner, with very little loss of life.

When I disagreed, a pleasant person called Elena Plotnikova accused me of being a ‘victim of the BBC and CNN’ and another tweeter said I had a ‘monkey brain’. Then a babushka called ‘Mainrushun’, a ‘linguist and Russian patriot’, told me to kill myself with novichok.

Social media is now a place for absurd and often wicked ideas. Last week Claire Graham, a special education needs teacher, objected to the LGBTQ group at Goldsmiths, University of London, threatening to target feminist academics who they claimed were prejudiced against transgendered individuals.

LGBTQ supporters apply the acronym TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), which not by accident sounds like ‘turds’, to feminists who don’t want men identifying as female to enter women’s safe places such as changing rooms. They claim absurdly that TERFs are guilty of hate crimes because their views ‘create the climate’ where transgendered people might be hurt.

In their tweets, Goldsmiths LGBTQ said: ‘The ideas of TERFs and anti-trans bigots literally *kill* and must be eradicated through re-education’, and suggested sending Graham ‘to the Gulag’.

The highly educated students then explained why such a course of action would be ‘compassionate and non-violent’, stating: ‘The penal system was rehabilitatory, self-supporting, a far cry from western capitalist notion of prison. The aim was to correct and change the ways of criminals.’ A kind of Center Parcs for people burdened by incorrect ideas.

According to a 1993 study of archival Soviet data, 1,053,829 people died in the camps between 1934 and 1953 (there is no data for 1919-1934).

There now seems to be a toxic miasma pervading the land from Twitter and Facebook. Children are bullied to death by it. Previously-ordinary people threaten to kill others they don’t know, while liars and rogues from all over the planet have a public platform.

This sea of hatred is spilling over into the streets. TV news recently showed a man shouting at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children that people hate their father. We once worried about the declining deference to people in public life; now we’ve got an onslaught of public savagery. What did these haters do before they had this outlet? I can’t believe they wrote letters to The Times.

You can divide adult social media users into filth, absolute filth (on the dark web) and masochistic show-offs like me and other mainstream journalists. But I am now asking whether it is worth the game: entering a world of putrid thinking where you are pitted against people whose arguments have no logic. I am getting tired of the online ordure and perhaps that is exactly what I am meant to feel.

Russia-watcher Catherine Fitzpatrick, who documents Kremlin disinformation or deza in Russian slang, for, says Russian trolls deliberately use crude dialogue to inhibit informed debate.

‘If you look at an article critical of Russia and you see that there are 200 comments that sound like they were written by 12-year-olds, then you just don’t bother to comment,’ she says. ‘It’s a way of driving discussion away completely.’

Those tactics are meant to stop democratic debate, and they work. As many of us in the West fall silent, there is a moving Russian army of comment heading this way. Every city and village in Russia has its own municipal website, according to Atlantic Magazine, the online version of Radio Free Europe. Russians are encouraged to write something on the forum, then Putin-paid trolls comment on what they have written. One, Mr Nasty, criticises the authorities to create a feeling of authenticity while another supports Putin.

Atlantic recently quoted Tatiana, who works 12-hour shifts in a large warehouse in St Petersburg. She earns 40,000 roubles (£450) a month, twice the amount most journalists make. Sometimes posing as a housewife, she is part of Internet Research, a round-the-clock army of 400 trolls clogging the forums on Russia’s municipal websites with pro-Kremlin comments and disseminating anti-Western propaganda and graphics. Their job is to spread deza throughout the world.

IR is funded by a company headed by Evgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’ because he owns so many of the restaurants favoured by Putin and his friends. A former hot-dog salesman who spent nine years in prison for robbery, he boasts a private jet and luxury yacht. His fortune is estimated to be worth more than one billion roubles or £11million. Three of his companies stand accused of interference in the last US election. He faces criminal charges in the US, including identity theft.

For Putin’s government, social media is an instrument of war against opposition at home and abroad. The West is only just beginning to catch up. To stand up against it all we can do is increase our education in computer science which is at disastrously low levels in state schools.

But we also need to be able to engage in a battle of ideas with higher levels of historical study, and more training in intellectual objectivity and precision in all academic subjects.

If we fail to do this we will be stuck with students who flounder among half-truths and silly political fads which have no basis in science or truth. Looking at the impoverished intellectual attitudes and crude behaviour of students at Goldsmiths, we are soon going to be defenceless, and deserve all the lies and delusions we’ll be fed.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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