The Internet is the Battlefield of Political Trolls

Note: This investigation uncovered the way all major political parties in Romania hired tens of people to pose as outraged citizens and hijack the online debates in the campaign for the presidential elections in 2009. In Romania, these people are called postaci. I translated this as political- or campaign trolls.

»An undercover reporter from Romania Libera infiltrated into PNL’s team of political trolls who are active online. Their mission: a massive smear campaign in the comments on any article about Crin Antonescu.

»Similar teams of campaign trolls also operate in favor of other candidates such as Mircea Geoana or Traian Basescu.

For about two weeks, I was a campaign troll. Every day I received from party consultants emails containing messages against their opponents and long lists with dozens of links where I should be spreading them. I logged onto blogs, forums and newspaper sites, I talked of common sense and I swore against the “power mongering sailor” and the “communist dumbass.” I bombarded with stereotypes all the articles that were about to give birth to any kind of rational debate. Tens of other campaign trolls did the same around the country, each working for his own party. We, the rival trolls, know each other and throw curse words at one other, but we don’t hate. We only hate two of the three main candidates for President. We love the third one. Or at least we’re in for some cash. Fair?

Departments for fast reaction

Ever since 1996, large parties have each started their own “departments for fast reaction,” that used to bombard talk shows on TV with text messages and emails touting the party’s message, in hope that they will be touched upon in conversation or at least show up somewhere on the screen. Then discussion groups appeared, as well as forums and blogs, while many news sites began allowing comments. All the elections that followed bore the trademark of activists leading “crusades” in every one of these media, and the ones in our day and age are by far the most animated.

Recently, “blind” messages of support for the National Liberal Party (PNL) and Crin Antonescu grew in number, managing to surpass all other parties that had more experience with this strategy. The PNL network is the most visible on social networking sites, and the only one you can join without a prior visit to the party’s headquarters. So I managed to become part of the “pack” of liberal campaign trolls. I wrote fervent messages side by side with them and found out who they are, how they are organized and, most importantly, why they make such an effort on the Internet, where people tend to have their own opinions and most of them don’t even vote.

“Anonymous party soldiers”

Activists oftentimes post under different usernames and fake email addresses. Yet I found them on social networking sites such as Facebook or Hi5, huddled together in groups supporting Crin Antonescu. I created the fictitious profile of a young man who left to study abroad, but who wanted to somehow contribute to the country’s future. To Antonescu’s campaign. I made about 60 friends from groups associated with the liberals and talked to them about activism. A member of the Liberal Party (PNL) advised me to directly contact the person coordinating this activity.

InPolitics, “politically neutral,” party consultant

Diana Dragomir is an executive manager of InPolitics Media, a portal of news, blogs and analysis that in the website’s description claims to be “politically neutral.” When I contacted Ms. Dragomir incognito, she told me that she would immediately put me in touch with a subordinate, to go over the details. The said subordinate, a “content manager,” would explain to me on IM what I was supposed to be doing: “Teams of activists send us a number of links that ‘hurt’, meaning they need commenting on. I’ll forward them to you and attach the messages you should be posting. Furthermore, I’ll send you our materials, so that you can get an idea of what our plans are for Crin Antonescu online”, said the InPolitics employee.

I eventually found out that the team of consultants from InPolitics.ro works for Crin Antonescu and PNL on their “integrated online campaign.” When officially contacted by Romania Libera, Ms. Dragomir denied that she is in charge of the team of campaign trolls: “it’s not us who coordinate the team of activists, but the they do exist.”

“They are people who do this as a job”

Several times a day, I started receiving lists of 40 to 60 links to the latest political articles on blogs, forums and newspaper sites. Besides me the list goes to 16 other people. The coordinator from InPolitics reveals, “Most of them are hired to do activism. They’re not liberals, they don’t sympathize with Antonescu, they’re simply activists, they offer us their services. They are people who do this as a job.”

These emails also go to four “supervising” members of PNL, of whom I was able to identify Marius Vladu (one of the coordinators of Crin Antonescu’s campaign), Iulia Huiu (former candidate for the European Parliament) and Dan Mihalache (former Social Democratic Party representative, now member of PNL). “We don’t do activism in the office,” they tell me, “but we do have a team spread around Bucharest and throughout the country whose activity we coordinate.”

Rumors and smear campaigns

Together with the list of links I also receive a list of slogans. It’s simple: I click on a link and post the served comment. I shouldn’t copy it exactly, I’m told, because it would raise suspicion. I have some creative freedom. So I get on it. On the first day the new government is rejected, so I bombard news sites with messages that claim, “Basescu is the only one guilty for this crisis” and he “chose to sink Romania for the sake of his political ambitions.” Today the unitary wage law passed, so I post: “Basescu the dictator won another battle. But let him not lie to himself, because he can’t win the war!” On the second day, I shout about the president brother’s business that “stinks from a mile away.”

During the following days, I declare in hundreds of comments how Basescu has gone mad, how he has a foul character, how he’s desperate, he’s pathetic, he unleashed himself, how because of him there’s no money left for pensions and salaries, and his silence of course proves that he’s hiding something. In yet another few hundred posts I show how Geoana, the Social Democrats’ candidate, is arranging secret meetings with Russian moguls, how he’s doing a double play and how he’s a total moron both in the eyes of the electorate and in those of the leaders of major world powers.

On November 9th I receive a table with polls open on various sites where I should be voting for Crin Antonescu. In most of them, he was already winning. The following day I am instructed to spread rumors about why “Geoana is deaf to the Constitutional Court.” On November 12th I’m sent the article “Crin Is Not Paying His Political Consultants” from daily newspaper Evenimentul Zilei, together with clear instructions to vilify consultant Dan Pavel and the reporters: “he’s clueless about real politics,” “he deserves no money at all,” “now that Becali stopped paying him, he comes begging to PNL,” “he’s Hrebenciuc’s man”, “it’s obvious this article is written on someone’s orders.”

Dan Mihalache – PNL: “They are our militants”

The files that contain these messages come with a letterhead from the PNL Department for Strategy and Communcation, led by Dan Mihalache. Contacted by Romania Libera, he admitted the existence of his team of surfers: “Of course we have them, they are, first and foremost, our militants. We’re also talking about people in other counties. Don’t imagine 50 people cramped in one room together posting on forums. They have their own organizational system that I don’t know too much about.”

According to a number of sources from the campaign team, the system Dan Mihalache claims he does not know too well works like this: the messages are conceived at the headquarters, by Mihalache’s own department. The slogans are then sent to InPolitics, who relays them further to a core of people paid precisely for commenting online and to trustworthy party members. They in turn distribute them in the field, to members of youth organizations from local chapters. And everyone starts commenting.

Mitrea: “Every party has them”

The liberals are not the only ones who employ these kinds of teams to flood websites with favorable opinions. Social Democratic Party (PSD) senator Miron Mitrea admitted, in a March interview, that he himself founded “the fast reaction cell” on Kiseleff Boulevard 10. “PDL was ahead of us for a long time because they were very well organized. It’s obvious they have a specialized team. A few years ago we said we can’t be dumber than others, so I also created a team of 3-4 people that should have a presence on blogs and online debates which are important and which we were missing out on.”

Felix Tataru – PDL: “Not us. The others!”

According to many sources in political communication, the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) pioneered this type of campaign in Romania. Felix Tataru, the director of GMP publicity agency that was in charge of Basescu and PDL’s campaign in the last few years, said that the liberal democrats also employ these kinds of people: “of course they exist, in general mostly among the youth. But you shouldn’t imagine some sort of task force of dozens of folks that spend their days on the Internet. It’s not even normal for things to be that way. PDL doesn’t have political trolls, but it seems that PSD and PNL do.”

Even Green Party candidate, Remus Cernea, has 3-4 people from within the party and a few volunteers that post comments, admitted secretary general Silviu Dumitru.

On the other hand, the spokespeople of the PSD and PDL campaigns, Victor Ponta and Sever Voinescu, claim that they have never heard of such a thing in their parties.

Readers about trolls: “Do you take turns on the computer?”

The average readers on news sites heavily criticize the flood of partisan comments. “One can’t have a conversation anymore because of these campaign trolls!” complained one reader on Romanialibera.ro. “How do you do this, do you take turns on the same computer? The messages are nearly identical and posted from a machine gun. This is not the first time I am seeing this!” commented “obosita” on one of the VoxPublica blogs. Some make fun of trolls — “How was the party meeting?” — others feel the need to specify before commenting that they are not campaign trolls, or nobody would read what they have to say.

In other instances, political trolls in different parties start arguing, and readers can witness epic clashes between “the basement on Kiseleff 10” and the “cellar from Modrogan” (PSD and PDL’s headquarters).

Sorin Tudor: “Comments can put tremendous pressure on the journalist”

What’s the use of the effort if the result is annoying and unconvincing? Sorin Tudor, a specialist in political communication, believes: “Many negative comments can put tremendous pressure on a less experienced journalist. They make him doubt himself.” On the other hand, “when coordinating a political campaign, I have two goals: first I have to convince you, the reporter, to broadcast my message in the newspaper or on TV. That’s where my voters are. Second, I have to create rumors. People tend to believe these things and pass them on to others.” There’s nothing legal that prohibits parties from doing this. And “everything that’s not illegal is normal,” says Sorin Tudor.

Parvulescu: “To me, this seems absolutely immoral”

On the other hand, political theorist Cristian Parvulescu believes this tactic is both immoral and dangerous. “These procedures are not unlike those employed by the former [Communist] Securitate: ad hominem attacks and stereotypes, no well-argued opinions whatsoever. In France, for example, this is a general characteristic of extremist parties — teams that monitor the Internet and then organize information attacks against newspapers. Something similar is taking place in Romania. Here, where the democratic culture is not stable enough, the situation becomes all the more dire, because it legitimizes smear campaigns against individuals.”

In 1996, a scandal occurred about the Social Democratic Party’s “poisoned phonecalls”. “The story is rather incredible seen from today’s perspective. Nowadays it makes perfect sense to make phonecalls for candidates. Back then, people nearly got lynched for that!” recalls Sorin Tudor, who at the time was working on Emil Constantinescu’s campaign.

In the same way an electoral text message is not perceived as “infringing upon citizens’ privacy” anymore, it may be that in a few years the avalanche of fabricated party comments will not bother anyone.

All things considered, Sorin Tudor says that a political science student could write a great thesis on messages from campaign trolls. A good place to start might be the comments section of this story.

Translation by Angela Radulescu.

One comment on “The Internet is the Battlefield of Political Trolls

  1. Articol f. interesant care expune ceva ce intuiam deja. E dezgustator. As avea cateva intrebari: de unde provin banii care ii platesc pe acesti asa-zisi activisti profesionisti? Sunt cumva sifonati de la bugetul de stat, prin diverse firme de apartament? Este adevarat ca pe criza din Romania, in mintea unora merge orice ca sa castige un ban. Nu stiu cine va citi vreodata comentariile astea, dar eu cred ca astfel de practici au un efect opus: de scarba. As fi fost gata sa votez cu Antonescu la alegerile urmatoare; dar dupa ce am citit aici, am sa ma mai gandesc. Politicienii nu inteleg un lucru: ca oamenii nu mai sunt asa de manipulabili cum erau o data si ca orice actiune de genul asta poate crea un efect opus. Sorin Tudor, specialistul in “political communication”, adica deformarea realitatii in spiritul cartii “1984” de Orwell, este de fapt specialist in dezinformare. Ce spune Sorin Tudor, ca “tot ce nu este ilegal este normal” este inca o deformare a logicii, care arata exact modul de actiune a acestor “specialisti”. Sunt convins ca Sorin Tudor stie perfect diferenta dintre “legal”, “normal” si “imoral”, dar se face ca n-o vede si minte cu nonsalanta, la fel ca toti politicienii pe care ii serveste. Toti acesti specialisti in “imagine”, “communicare” nu sunt altceva decat instrumentele unui alt gen de “lupta de clasa”. Clasa “baietilor destepti” si clasa oamenilor cu bun simt. Cred ca baietilor destepti li se apropie funia de par, exact in momentul cand se cred cei mai destepti.

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