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' - as its tagline states. While fictional, every episode can be said to hold a kernel of truth that strikes at our deepest fears or most primal tendencies.
Take season one's "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" - an episode that watches a peaceful suburban neighborhood descend into chaos. In the final scene, we see neighbors accusing neighbors, a frenzy of weapons grabbed, a collection of flashing lights, and a bevy of people running around in aimless panic. The camera then pans out to reveal two indifferent figures on a hillside in front of what looks like a control panel. In a brief dialogue, we learn that these observers are conducting a typical "procedure." As one says to the other, "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 that, when unexplainable activity occurs, people feel threatened and will almost certainly turn on themselves – "the most dangerous enemy they can find."
While this may seem extraordinary, its parallels to reality are plausible when you scroll through an 'ordinary' 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 personalized attacks on other users. 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.
Posing as Americans, these sock puppet accounts are foreign actors spreading disinformation through fake profiles. These accounts can be either a bot, a troll, or a cyborg - a bot being a computer programmed to post at a specific rate; a troll being a person(s) doing so, and a cyborg being a bot that is occasionally manned by a real person to humanize the account.
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 (see below) appeared frequently in the months leading 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 a fellow citizen and that of a foreign actor? If you feel yourself reacting to a post, either in deference or scorn, 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 feel cuckolded by the suspicion that a social media account is fake, then the best course of action is to simply unfollow or notify the platform. Without a 100% certainty of who is behind the post, trying to expose the hoaxer could lead to engaging a genuine person behind the scenes and causing unnecessary strife. The point of professional troll accounts is to sow discord and malevolence; thus, by confronting an account holder, you are expanding the scope of their work.
As is the endgame for professional trolls, 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 self-destruction is manipulated by foreign actors outside their national jurisdiction, drawing American citizens into a hotbed of confusion and paranoia. Out of feelings of self- and community- preservation, 'ordinary' people can become online "monsters". More than that, every day these posts appear more and more genuine. And if recent history is any 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 those 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.