News & Politics

From Mexico With Love: How to Identify and Effectively Deal with Troll Farms Paid by Oligarchs and Drug Cartels

Step one: Check their profiles. Paid trolls don't have friends, only pets.

Fat internet troll using a laptop. Vector clip art illustration with simple gradients. All in a single layer.
Photo Credit: Memo Angeles

Whether hired by Russian agencies or the rich and powerful of other countries, trolls are here to stay. They are the new wall before the real wall. And believe it or not, Mexican activists can help you identify them.

Walls are built so that ordinary people cannot learn from each other. In the early '90s, when our presidents and business leaders negotiated a deal that was not going to help the working families of the U.S. or Mexico, we could have used our collective wisdom to help ourselves in both countries for a truly democratic trade deal, but there was no social media back then, and mainstream media was only voicing the powerful ones.

Now that we have broad internet access, a new system of misinformation was invented: troll farms, paid by those with lots of money and the will to manipulate ordinary people. From an oligarch linked to a powerful political party, corporations, foundations, banks, and even drug cartels (Mexican cartels are now hiring highly qualified computer programmers), they all want to control people’s minds and hearts for their own profit.  

Trump voters and Steve Bannon’s followers may think that Americans have nothing to learn from someone born in a non-industrialized country other than cooking recipes. However, Mexican progressives may have more experience fighting against troll farms than you would imagine. If it is hard to believe, just think about it: oligarchs and drug lords manipulating electoral campaigns are precisely what we have in Mexico. Some Mexican activists fighting for the most vulnerable communities identified a few of these foreign trolls influencing Americans last year before US intelligence services declared there were trolls flooding Twitter. Incidentally, I alone caught Assange, who promotes himself as the epitome of transparency and truthfulness, telling a little lie to the world – and I don’t need to be a secret agent to do so, but just an investigative writer. I’ll tell you how I did it.

So, as many honest, hard-working Mexicans prepare to support our first indigenous female candidate running for president next year in the Mexican election, while our good-hearted U.S. neighbors get ready to face a challenging midterm election, and ordinary Russian people fighting for democracy and free speech prepare themselves for another campaign of Vladimir Putin or whomever he chooses to run another term in 2018, we could all help each other in the fight for a world where many worlds fit, not just straight male billionaires playing golf, soccer or hockey while destroying the planet.

Here are three techniques you can use to identify and effectively deal with a paid troll.

1. Review Their Profiles: Paid Trolls Have No Friends, Only Pets

According to our experience in Mexico since 2006, when someone is systematically deviating, derailing, ridiculing, simplifying with memes or otherwise ending a meaningful discussion precisely when other thoughtful participants provide facts and/or have a point, it is likely you are dealing with an oligarch’s paid troll, be it related to a powerful political party, a corrupt government agency illegally spending your taxes on a party’s campaign, a foundation, a corporation or a drug cartel. Unlike bots, which are robots, these cyber-thugs are human beings behind an avatar, and you first must learn to differentiate them from unpaid fanatics, who are also acting like trolls, but eventually get too angry to go on posting insults, probably because they’d rather hit you (they are fanatics, after all), they run out of drugs/alcohol, or any other random, human motive. While unpaid fanatics are just echoing what others taught them to say until they run out of fuel, paid trolls take shifts. They are coordinated like a 24-hour office staff. While you live your life, go to work, and go to sleep, they keep spreading misinformation. That’s a problem, but also their weakness, because that’s how you know you are facing people on someone’s payroll.

There are several easy ways to separate paid from unpaid trolls. Farm trolls receive training to attack with similar tactics, and work in couples or teams. Their off-topic, insulting, incendiary or otherwise distracting posts made from an account with a faceless profile picture is often instantly “liked” or retweeted by another troll with another non-human profile picture. That one is his/her peer. They are both trained to end any conversation. So, before wasting your time reacting, you may want to take a look at both profiles and timelines. These can be also classified as entirely fake and semi-fake. When they are entirely fake, they don’t have family photographs or any picture with real friends, but pets’ and illustrations. Their comments are not about any personal event in their lives, and their “human” pics are taken from miles away in a forest or field.

On the other hand, there are also paid-trolls whose profiles are actually human. In that case, you will likely find hints on who they work for by seeing events they attended, politicians or public figures they admire, and places they have been lately. Then you know whose payroll you are having a discussion with – that is, if you choose to continue - and you won’t get upset at a troll paid to infuriate you.

To give you an example, in late November 2016, just two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, swastikas on NYC graffiti started to emerge, Mexican college students who are my friends started to be harassed by their classmates in their campuses like never before, and a man in a paper hood covering his face placed his piggy-bank-setup on the ground near Union Square asking for money “to build the wall,”  I found on the Facebook map of “Check-Ins” for “places you have visited” for an almost-faceless profile of one of these cyber-thugs that he/she had been in Zhukovsky, Moskovskaya Oblast, Russia, just one month ago. What was a “US American” patriot doing so far away just one month ago and why did he/she come back so enraged defending Trump? I have no solid answer. I’m just pointing out the remarkable coincidence of a pet’s profile acting like a troll with no other information than the one place she/he had recently visited, being outraged at the Clintons’ actions but never Trump’s.

Once you have learned that the voice you are dealing with may be a paid troll, our advice to you from Mexico is, don’t waste any more of your precious, non-paid time. If you are an honest, hard-working person, you are probably not rich and you don’t have time to spare. You may want to alert other non-paid participants involved in the conversation about this paid troll by pointing out your findings, but never address the troll directly again. Here's why.

2. Would You Have a Conversation with a Checkbook in Real Life? Don’t Keep Them Going!

I’m going to be blunt, to make you understand how important it is to take this suggestion seriously. Down in Mexico, we deal with trolls who are paid by whoever wants to cover the assassins and kidnappers of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students. They are capable of saying the cruelest things about the victims and their family members. They even laughed at Antonio Tizapa, father of one disappeared student, who started the initiative of "Running for Ayotzinapa” at the NYC Marathon, running for his lost son.

Trolls mocked his son by saying “that’s exactly how the idiot ran for his life.” Even though these kinds of trolls cover their traces, their all-capitalized boilerplate sentences written with terrible spelling and syntax give them away. They are soldiers in organized crime, whether working directly for a specific cartel, linked to the 27th Army Battalion (as investigative reports show) or a corrupt government agency. All their bosses care about is the tons of heroin that were allegedly hidden in the bus that the students were riding in the state that feeds more than half of the market of U.S. addicts, not the victims of the massacre.

I’m telling you this because these trolls are not thinking about what you said to them. They are being supervised by their employers, and they need to look smart to cash their checks. The more they humiliate you, the more likely is that they stay employed. They are not going to accept anything you say, however clear, factual, persuasive and professional you are. Once you have reason to believe you are dealing with a paid troll trying to destroy real information, take note you may be raising his pay every time you address him directly.

Imagine you run into a man who is having a heated conversation on the street with his checkbook, credit card or wallet. That’s how you’d look like in real life when you spend too much time trying to persuade a paid troll. No matter what you say, the troll is only looking at his wallet.

3. When a Troll Puts You 'On Trial,' Fight the Language of Labels and Absolute Values

If you have your own thoughts and experiences fighting for a humanitarian cause, people are actually reading your comments. Trolls don’t like that. They will quickly use labels and absolute values to discredit you. They steal noble causes to stain them. They put you “on trial” asking lawyer-like questions as if you were a suspect breaching the "law.” They are the ones lying, but they will question your intentions adamantly until people forget that they sign under fake names like “L.G.” “Puppy” or “Abraham Hazou,” not you. No matter what your answer is, they are just waiting for your next move to trash you with a label. Labels are useful to them because you have to spend a lot of time inserting multiple “disclaimers” before you start talking. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani recently performed an SNL monologue about all the annoying explanations that need to be addressed to fight the racist oversimplification of labeling.

The most brutal cases of this stereotyping effectiveness are probably the Pizzagate and the “Paid-By-Soros” campaign on Twitter against any sign of compassion from American citizens toward immigrants. Also, protests for women’s basic rights were all caricatured as insensitive because they didn’t care to condemn the alleged pedophiles in the Democratic Party and because they were all supposed to be “paid by Soros.” Even though InfoWars’ host Alex Jones apologized later for spreading the Pizzagate nonsense, the damage was done at the right time to have some impact. 

Speaking of “disclaimers” against labeling, before I go on, I need to make my own clarification here. I have several close and beloved Catalan friends. I am not against the Catalan people’s right to choose their independence if that’s what they want. Back in my childhood in Mexico I grew up along with pro-Franco families. When I was a kid, they terrorized me singing their fascist anthem, raising their right hands.

I have to say, while the English-speaking youth in the '60s and '70s were inspired by Bob Dylan, the Spanish speaking world owes most of its poetry in music to Catalan genius Joan Manuel Serrat. I doubt Assange had heard one of the many Serrat songs that millions of Catalan, Spanish and Latin American people sang by heart since we were kids.

It strikes me as an unbelievable coincidence that Julian Assange, after equaling Nazis with Black Lives Matter activists in one of his tweets, suddenly cares so much about fascism in Spain, and gets so actively involved - even savvy about the Spanish press, when he didn’t speak Spanish just a few months ago. By reviewing his previous tweets, it is clear that Julian Assange didn’t spend much of his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy learning the language of his hosts. Assange didn’t even care to use automatic Spanish translators to have his own followers posing as Ecuadorian people a couple of months ago this same year. Actually, he lied about an article in English produced by Wikileaks saying that the Ecuadorian people, not Wikileaks, supported his staying at the embassy in London.

“How cool are the Ecuadorian people?” Assange tweeted, lobbying for himself.

The linked article was fake news though. I checked. Assange said that “the Ecuadorian people wanted Assange to stay,” quoting some Tweets that were not written by Ecuadorian people in Spanish. I know this because I reviewed all the tweets created under the announced hashtag supporting Assange (#ElMundoConAssange), and they were all in English, made from English-speaking fake accounts who weren’t in Ecuador, and even one in poor Spanish. None of them was from a single Ecuadorian ordinary voter speaking Spanish in Ecuador. “See any Ecuadorian people here?” I tweeted, but no Ecuadorian answered. Ecuadorian people were too busy with their own presidential elections at that time, in a contested race.

My dear Venezuelan friend Leonard Zelig, winner of the Guayaquil Film Festival, is a talented filmmaker who was in Ecuador before the election for the premiere of his film. He traveled across several cities while promoting his movie. According to his informal inquiries, most of the Ecuadorian people he asked about Julian Assange don’t even know who he was. They didn’t know much about the international celebrity they are giving asylum to in London, who is now advising the Catalan elected president to do the same at another country’s embassy.

Needless to say, my friend’s account was not a professional survey, just a personal experience, but saying that “the Ecuadorian people are launching a campaign” for Assange was definitely an exaggeration impersonating the people’s will - just like politicians do. Coming from the man who claims to have a “pristine record” of transparency, it didn’t look good for Spanish speakers.  However, just a few weeks later, Assange became instantly passionate about the Catalan referendum, without showing any interest before, and now he retweets media articles in Spanish.

Regardless of whether he has a hidden agenda or not, maybe it is time for Julian Assange’s admirers to realize that their hero is not as principled as he would have them believe. He too lies about “what Ecuadorian people want,” just as politicians do, and the only thing that can help us wake up from this nightmare ruled by billionaires and oligarchs is not a world manipulated by IT techs, but our collective knowledge, which as good neighbors we need to share. It’s OK to use digital technology while doing so. It’s not OK to forget our ancestors’ legacy, history, basic humanitarian principles, and common sense.

Malú Huacuja del Toro is a Mexican novelist, playwright and screenwriter with eight published fiction books in Spanish. Her recent plays include the monologue “Quixota in the Time of Trump: How to be a Mexican Feminist in 15 Minutes.” She can be reached at [email protected].