That inflammatory news blurb in your Facebook feed that’s got your dander up? Or the one some acquaintances are circulating that’s got you thinking they’ve lost their minds? Hold up a bit. There’s this recent column in The Atlantic:
“We’ve since learned that Russian trolls organized anti-immigrant rallies in two states, and posed online as Black Lives Matter supporters in one instance and as members of a Muslim American organization in another. They hoped to spark discord among factions of our fellow citizens. So if you’ve ever felt at a loss to understand how some of your neighbors could possibly reach certain conclusions, consider that they could have been targeted by teens in a Macedonian village bent on duping them.” Source: Don’t Forget to Adjust for Russian Trolls
What is going on here is a good deal more sophisticated most of what is commonly thought of as activity by trolls. These are full-on disinformation campaigns by a hostile foreign power. The objective is destabilization, and as such, they don’t appear to be all that picky about the side of the dispute they happen to be stoking.[*] The content being disseminated is divisive propaganda intended to set Western Europe and the US on fire.
Garden-variety trolls, in contrast, are merely sadistic anti-social misfits who are still single (or ought to be), probably addicted to porn, and are 30+ and have been living with a parent since birth. They are like that tomato that’s been left on the vine in the greenhouse a bit too long. A bit squishy to the actual touch. In another context they might be tormenting a neighbor’s cat. Or shooting out streetlights. Or using a drone to peep in your bedroom window. There is not much difference between the online behavior of this type of troll and some idiot keying cars in a parking lot.
But the effect both types are rather similar. Fires are being set. Some with a malevolent, well-considered purpose. Others because the arsonists are addicted to the chaos they create. And we react rather to readily to the rumor and hoaxes being served up by both. And find ourselves at war with each other.
So step back from that incendiary comment thread and take a breath, particularly if you can’t independently verify what is being asserted.
It is best to just move along. Or better yet, just get off Facebook and go get coffee.
Close your eyes and imagine it is 1938. The German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann have just discovered nuclear fission.
Now give the process of Uncontrolled Nuclear Fission an innocuous acronym like UNUFI, something that sounds a bit like a stuffed animal. And imagine those chemists also discover ways to make it happen within reasonable reach of private parties at manageable costs. Who can then use the process in a barn somewhere out in the woods.
On the one hand, employees have a responsibility to exercise some sort of reasonable care and compartmentalize political activities from an employer’s business activity. But once reasonable care has been exercised regarding that boundary we should be free to speak our minds. And not be abused by other Christians.
If we are trolling fellow believers because of their political opinions our allegiance is no longer to the risen Christ.
Here’s an eye-opening article from The Atlantic on the weaponization of social media:
Most of us did not associate Twitter with terrorism until the Islamic State stormed into Mosul. We have given similarly scant thought to what might happen if the wondrous tools of the 21st century are ever paired with the scale and intensity of the conflicts that defined the 20th. Source: How Twitter Is Changing Modern Warfare – The Atlantic
The article lays out how bad actors exploit social media for propaganda purposes at large scales, serving up deliberate falsehoods to manipulate divisive national conflicts.
At least some of the trolls we encounter may not all be maladjusted losers living in their parents’ basements.
Harvard historian Karen L. King ignited a controversy at a 2012 conference in Rome when she presented a papyrus fragment which appeared to refer to Jesus’ wife. An article in the July/August 2016 Atlantic details a subsequent investigation into the fragment’s provenance:
“A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.” Source: Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic
An interview with the Boston Globe echoed the Atlantic article. King has acknowledged that material given to her in support of the fragment’s provenance appears to have been fabricated. And King’s source has denied forging the papyrus or any knowledge regarding its authenticity.
It is possible that the fragment might be an old fraud. But King clearly believes she has been lied to (see follow up Atlantic column), so this seems unlikely.
The article is quite long but well worth reading. It lays out the anatomy of what increasingly appears to be an elaborate deception. In fairness King never ruled out the possibility of fabrication. But I am not an academic so I really don’t understand why the document was presented publicly in the first place, given the very large blank space where the provenance ought to have been. The scholarship is summarized by the Harvard Divinity School here.
The most effective deceptions are indirect. The perpetrator presents a fragmentary context buttressed primarily by misdirection and a few strategic lies. The core falsehood is misstated, as if the con artist doesn’t actually believe it, and is trusting the mark to help sort the matter out. It helps if the deception fits into something the mark really wants to believe. Then the mark is allowed to fill the very substantial blanks with whatever facts and opinions may happen to fit.
And even otherwise knowledgeable people get sucked in.