Troll Farming: What It Is & How It Affects the News

Written and Fact-Checked by 1440 Editorial Staff
Last updated

About 86% of Americans consume digital news of some form, and 50% of Americans get their news from social media at least some of the time. Internet trolls know this, which is why they turn to fake news outlets and social media pages to spread misinformation. 

The rise in troll farming has spread across the digital media landscape in the past few years. It was prevalent in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in the United States, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Experts estimate that troll farms reached 140 million Americans each month on Facebook alone ahead of the 2020 election.

While individuals cannot take down international troll farms, they can learn to spot fake news and prevent its spread. Learn more about this internet phenomenon and how to limit it. 

What Is a Troll Farm?

Internet troll farms are dedicated to harming the reputations of individuals or movements to further the agendas of organizations that stand to gain in some way from spreading misinformation or disinformation. Troll farms spread false information and conspiracy theories across the web through algorithm manipulation tactics. 

For example, someone at a troll farm will create a fake story or share a doctored photo online. Then, through the help of individuals at the farm or bots programmed to support the farm’s efforts, the misinformation will get shared across dozens — if not hundreds — of accounts. The bots will also like and comment on the posts, boosting their perceived popularity and increasing the number of people who see the content. 

If the misinformation campaign is effective, users who see the post will believe the article or photo is real. They will engage with the content and share it on their own pages. This is how a fake story becomes widely believed. 

Who Uses Troll Farms?

Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, believes Russia and China were the first two countries to employ “keyboard armies,” or people paid by the government to post online and manipulate the content that the average user sees. However, Abramowitz says that at least 30 countries have been known to hire people to work in troll farms and either spread misinformation or try to change public opinion. 

For example, the government of the Philippines hired people to support its drug crackdown and make it seem more popular than it is. Turkey had a keyboard army of 6,000 people who argued with users who were critical of the government and its policies.  

Troll farms can have a significant impact on current events and the beliefs of the general public. Here are a few ways this cyber warfare has been used in the past decade. 

Russian Troll Farms and the 2016 U.S. Election 

One of the most prominent examples of troll farms occurred during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Research shows Russian trolls and bots shared information that supported Donald Trump while actively trying to harm the chances of Hillary Clinton winning. 

President Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to win because he thought it would lead to better relations between the two countries, which meant there would likely be fewer restrictions and sanctions imposed on Russia from the United States.  

This instance of troll farming is harmful because Americans received fake information that misled them when deciding who to vote for. 

Russian Troll Farms and the Ukraine War

In March 2022, 79% of Americans supported military aid to Ukraine. Russian troll farms started spreading misinformation to decrease Ukraine’s popularity. In one instance, a fake Russian account tried to claim that Ukraine was exaggerating its number of civilian casualties. It created a viral video showing a living person moving around in a body bag pretending to be dead. 

Spreading misinformation like this across social media sites like Facebook can threaten the lives of Ukrainians if Americans decide to reduce their aid. As of February 2024, only 58% of Americans supported sending aid to Ukraine.  

Brazilian Troll Farms  

The Brazilian government is reportedly another leader in the use of troll farms. President Jair Bolsonaro allegedly spread misinformation about his opponents in 2018 to ensure he was elected. His presidential campaign was almost entirely digital. 

Some Brazilians even call the government troll farm the “Office of Hate” because it has been known to attack anyone who says anything bad about the government, elected officials, and its policies.

A government-led troll farm makes it hard for citizens to get reliable information and voice their opinions. 

Chinese Troll Farms 

China is known for its internet censorship but many of its laws and restrictions are contained within its borders. However, some troll farms have expanded into the United States. Recently, 40 Chinese citizens were arrested in New York City for running a fake police station in Chinatown. They were part of China’s “cyberspace administration” and intimidated Chinese Americans who spoke negatively against the country. 

How Can We Combat Troll Farming?

Troll farms are an unfortunate reality of the modern internet era. Fortunately, individual users can take steps to ignore or actively fight against trolls and bots. Here are a few ways to identify members of these keyboard armies and prevent the spread of misinformation.  

Teaching News Literacy 

News literacy is the ability to “judge the reliability and credibility of information,” according to the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. An internet user practices news literacy when they critically evaluate the source of information, the content creator, and the content itself. News literacy involves skills like fact-checking and identifying the potential for bias. 

When more people have news literacy skills, they can identify misinformation and either report it or ignore it. This means fewer false stories will be shared across the web and troll farms will be less effective. 

Teachers can develop news literacy skills in students as early as elementary school. As soon as kids start using the internet, they need to hone critical thinking skills to identify potentially harmful or incorrect content. 

Enforcing Fact-Checking Standards 

While individuals need to develop news literacy skills, social media platforms also need to be held to a high fact-checking standard with the expectation that their sites do not share misinformation. When troll farms are blocked on social media or their content is no longer shared, regular users are less likely to fall for their fake news

 

For example, there was a significant amount of fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic that claimed the vaccines were unsafe and conspiracies stating the government was trying to control people by forcing them to wear masks. This potentially increased the number of COVID cases, along with deaths, because people believed these lies. Had social media sites done a better job of blocking this misinformation, many people would still have their loved ones here today.

Encouraging Independent Journalism 

Independent journalism refers to media that is free from government or private influence. Government-owned media outlets tend to report positive stories about the government, while company-owned media outlets do not want to slander the owner. This creates bias in journalism because relevant news stories are not shared.

Identifying bias in the journalistic source is an important part of news literacy, but bias can also be prevented through independent journalism. Supporting and encouraging unbiased parties to share the news can increase the chances that web users receive factual, reliable information. 

Troll farms are likely to be part of the 2024 presidential election and any other news events in the coming years. By teaching critical thinking and practicing news literacy skills, you can learn to spot trolls, report them, and prevent the spread of their falsehoods.

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