Before the Russia Investigation, I often worried about the increasing ease with which people can silence critical voices in Social Media Land. In an essay entitled “In Praise of Internet Trolls”—an essay which I now sorta regret writing—I maintained that: “If Socrates was alive today and on Facebook he’d be that annoying guy that keeps asking uncomfortable questions, bringing up annoying facts.” The essay ended with the following admonition: “It is better that ten guilty trolls slip through the cracks and crash your online party than that one innocent Socrates suffer in silence on your Blocked People list.”
But given what we now know about the extent of Russian meddling in Social Media Land, I must confess that I find it considerably harder to wholeheartedly extol the virtues of openness. It’s not that I’ve changed my mind; it’s that I’ve lost the courage of my convictions. The Open Society is starting to look a whole lot like The Undefended City. Our enemies have been slipping Trojan Horses through the cracks in our city walls—cracks made wide by our commitment to openness. We’ll have to be less tolerant of trolls in the future, far more suspicious of them, far more willing to reach for the hemlock. Will this come at a cost? Absolutely. Is there another way? I doubt it.
Ask “Who Benefits?” first, then “Is This True?”
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was afraid of Martin Luther King—“the most dangerous Negro in America”—and it’s fairly well known that he had a small army of agents watching him 24/7, reading his mail, wiretapping his phones, and listening in on his conversations—just as it’s fairly well known that King cheated on his wife with some regularity. What’s far less known is that the FBI often used this information in decidedly diabolical ways. For instance, at one point, Hoover sent a threatening letter to King which said, in essence: we’ve got proof of your infidelities, we’ve got sex tapes, and, unless you commit suicide, we’re going to release them to the public in 34 days: “You are finished. . . . King you are done. . . . The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are—an evil and abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.” Kill yourself. Or we’ll kill your reputation. Of course King didn’t kill himself. Nor did he bow out of public life. But King was an exceptionally courageous dude. Made of tough stuff. I can’t help but wonder how many politicians, activists, and journalists have shied away from serious political issues after they received a letter like this.
Texting, email, digital photography, social media, and the proliferation of high-quality video equipment have radically transformed 21st-century communication. There’s a record of pretty much everything now. In practice, this means that there’s a great deal of dirt, or stuff that can be construed as dirt, on pretty much everyone under the age of 30, and many of those above it. What does that mean for the future of The Open Society? Do we want to live in a culture were public figures can be disgraced and taken down at a moment’s notice whenever they challenge the powers that be? If, like me, your answer to that question is NO, then we need to become far more critical of exposés. If something embarrassing becomes public, when they’ve got dirt on everybody, ask “Who benefits?” first, then “Is this true?”
Ancient Greek Philosopher or Paid Russian Troll?
These days, you need to assume that anyone with a fishy profile who’s too crazy progressive, too crazy pro-Trump—too crazy anything really—is in fact a paid troll working for an organization that wishes to manipulate you. People that I was Facebook friends with for years—people with lots of more or less benign online interactions, pictures of kids, pictures of vacations, etc.—turned out to be fake accounts. These troll farms go to great lengths to achieve a kind of verisimilitude which passes for authenticity.
But there’s a handy heuristic that pierces the veil of even the best of the fakes: namely, send out a general message to all of your mutual friends and ask them if they, or anyone they know, has actually met the Facebook friend in real life. Mark my words: even the best of the fakes invariably fail this Turing test. Because this is highly unlikely and statistically improbable. If someone who has, say, 3500 Facebook friends, hasn’t met at least one of your mutual friends in real life, you can be fairly certain that you’re dealing with a fake account set up in some troll farm in Saint Petersburg.
—John Faithful Hamer