I am not a bot. I am a Real Live Person. I am not Russian, but I speak some Russian! And I do love a good trench coat and shades… Trolls? Not one of them either. (A troll in Central Park? I liked that troll. My kids did, too. Remember that movie?)
Now, I find myself (again) compelled to speak my mind this week — unfiltered, unvarnished, unedited. So here it is. I don’t like Russian bots. I don’t like Internet trolls. I don’t like fake news, junk news, or the type of information “consumers” we’ve become. And I can’t help but blame us — yes, us — at least in part. The extent to which our laziness, our bad habits, our pressurized schedules, our naiveté, and our partisan politics have made us vulnerable to conspiracy theories and ridiculous narratives is shocking. We have only to read this recent Times article on Twitter’s (unwitting) facilitation of spreading fake stories.
I’m sure you’ve already heard of the Facebook proliferation of distorted and false messaging via ads taken out by the Russians. And the latest on how easily Twitter enables the dissemination of fake or junk news is equally if not more stunning.
Now, while I may make light of trolls, gnomes, and my propensity for collared coats and fedoras — who doesn’t look chic in classic trench and secret agent accessories? Who doesn’t love a fab hat and cool shades? — this is serious business. I remind you — and I remind us all — to read professional journalists, to vet sources, to use common sense. I also encourage you to read beyond your existing belief system, to take the time to get your news from more than a few headlines on your screen or favorite cable network, and likewise your water cooler guy — wherever he hangs out.
Unfortunately, we live in an age when it is easy to alter what is seen. We are crazy-busy, preoccupied, and increasingly conditioned to accept our news delivered in sound bites and headlines.
Let’s remember the importance of serious debate, of serious media, and vetting our sources — their expertise, their credibility, their authority to speak. Let’s remember the difference between fact and factoid — a fact is based on verifiable data from reliable sources, whereas a factoid is unverifiable and inaccurate — and masquerading as a fact. Let’s not pretend that Russia didn’t interfere in our elections — whether or not we can ever determine if they impacted the actual outcome. More frightening still, to me, is the fact that they continue to disrupt as this Washington Post article points out, using very recent examples of discord over peaceful protest within the NFL.
Hello… Fake news? Junk news? Russian Troll Farms? Will those who pretend these do not pose a threat kindly consider a reality check? Will the rest of us behave like responsible adults and pay attention to our sources?
Now, a few distinctions, given that I’m a stickler for this sort of thing…
Not only am I not a troll (and nor do I not engage in trolling), but I am also not a gnome, though some — given my petite stature — just might disagree. And lest you disparage the folkloric gnome simply by association with the troll, allow me to separate fact from fiction on this score as we note the non-nefarious nature of the gnome as opposed to the troubling and terrible troll.
Behold the bounty of multiple dictionaries at the ready!
Gnomes, as defined by Dictionary.com:
… one of a species of diminutive beings, usually described as shriveled little old men, that inhabit the interior of the earth and act as guardians of its treasures; troll.
Oh dear… Can’t say that I care for that definition much. Shriveled? All of them? Synonymous with trolls? I dare say, not — though I rather like that they stand guard over treasure rather than exclusively engaging in egregious endeavors. Perhaps this definition of gnome from Merriam-Webster offered for students provides additional nuance:
… an imaginary dwarf believed to live inside the earth and guard treasure
See why multiple sources can be helpful, instead of the first one you run across? Might I glean from this second source a bit more grace on the “shriveled” aspect?
As for trolls, this definition from Merriam-Webster doesn’t appear to be entirely synonymous with gnome:
… a dwarf or giant of folklore living in caves or hills
More importantly, among the definitions is this (still from Merriam-Webster):
a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content…
Yes, indeed. Antagonistic. Disruptive. Irrelevant! But potentially powerful when executed with masterful and malignant intent — and this kind of troll is neither imaginary nor confined to folklore. He is alive and well and multiplying, a phenomenon with which most of us are all too familiar as part of our acquaintance or use of the online world — whether aware of his dangerous doings or not.
The notion that large-scale “disruption” was successfully accomplished by Russia? Doesn’t that make your skin crawl? The fact that it continues — doesn’t that creep you out or piss you off?
At the very least, as information “consumers” we could do a far better job of taking responsibility for what we read and repeat. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes; that doesn’t mean that legitimate and honest journalists — people who care deeply about their reputations and what they do — don’t sometimes get it wrong. They do; we all do. Nonetheless, we can certainly stop feeding the trolls through our own negligence.
So let’s do what we can to vet, stay open to hearing multiple sides of a story, nurture a healthy and consistent skepticism, and value what we once took for granted — real people whose credentials and agendas you can validate, and legitimate, professional, verifiable sources. Wouldn’t that reduce our own well-intentioned sharing, tweeting, and passing along junk news as if it were fact — when it’s anything but?
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