The Twilight Zone, the classic science fiction series that aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964, often showcased apocalyptic scenarios of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. While fictional, every episode can be said to hold a kernel of truth that strikes at our deepest fears or most primal instincts.
Season one's "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" watches a peaceful suburban neighborhood descend into chaos, with neighbors accusing neighbors, a frenzy of weapons grabbed, and people running around in aimless panic. The camera then pans out to reveal two otherworldly figures standing on a hillside in front of what looks like a control panel. In a brief dialogue, we learn the observers are conducting an experiment, with one saying, "just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones, and lawnmowers…throw them into darkness for a few hours… and then, sit back and watch the pattern". The pattern being, when unexplained activity occurs and people feel threatened, they will almost certainly turn on "the most dangerous enemy they can find" — each other.
While this may seem farcical, its parallels to reality are plausible when you scroll through the average American's social media feed and see an emphatic message or post with hundreds of angry comments, generating a multi-thread heated argument that leads to personal attacks. What may not be so obvious though is that, all too often, this chaos is engineered by professional trolls - our nonfictional indifferent figures on a hillside, whose messages are carefully crafted to drive a wedge into already polarized ideological lines and undermine trust in democratic institutions.
It's been well documented that a single organization, Russia's Internet Research Agency, is behind much of this deception. The U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has been monitoring this activity since the 2016 election, when advertisements specifically undermining the Hillary Clinton campaign appeared frequently on social media in the lead up to the election. Since then, the Committee has indicted 13 individuals in 2018 and has identified hundreds of other fake accounts. But even more exist today.
So how can ordinary Americans differentiate between the post of other Americans and that of foreign actors? Get in the habit of asking yourself the ten following questions:
While the majority of social media accounts are genuine, even those presenting some of these signs, skepticism of accounts that meet some of the above criteria is warranted. If you are wary that a social media account is fake, the best course of action is to simply unfollow or notify the platform. Without 100% certainty of who is behind a post, trying to expose the hoaxer could lead to engaging a genuine person behind the scenes and causing unnecessary strife. The goal of professional trolls is to sow discord and malevolence; thus, by confronting an account holder, you are unwittingly expanding the scope of their work.
In the final words of the otherworldly visitors, “Their world is full of Maple Streets, and we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves, one to the other, one to the other, one to the other." Like those on Maple Street, this kind of modern-day information warfare is drawing American citizens into a hotbed of confusion and paranoia, turning 'ordinary' people into online "monsters." More than that, every day these posts appear more and more genuine. And if recent history is a bellwether for the future, it may be only a matter of time before the malevolence and disorder online, spills its way into the streets - unless 'ordinary' people become better at recognizing who's behind the controls.
Note: The list of questions was derived from Clemson University professors' Darren Linvell's and Patrick Warren's clever "Spot the Troll" game, where they review all this information in more detail with specific examples. Moreover, through their Media Forensic Hub, Linvell and Warren have synthesized a wealth of information to help the public identify fake social media accounts.