Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Troll groups in Swedish Facebook

Swedish media has reported quite a lot on Facebook troll groups, ie groups changing names or information or pictures or whatever after they've reached a certain number of members. Usually the groups are about humanitarian aid which causes hundreds of thousands to join, after which the group is suddenly about paedophilia (or whatever seems most provoking and angering to the naïve people who joined in the first hand.) See The Local, reliable as ever, for a summary.

The most recent example is a group claiming to donate 2 crowns (approx. 0,20) to Haiti earthquake victims for every member, with the money coming from a secret sponsor, to be revealed upon reaching 200 000 members. Funny enough, although several major Swedish media outlets have reported the group as a fake, it is at the time of writing gaining members.

This is, of course, a global phenomenon. The reason that it is getting a lot of media attention in Sweden now is due to the smallness of the language community - when something goes around here, it quickly spreads to everyone, prompting instant mediation. Behind the trend is a small group of trolls gathered around the popular Swedish discussion site Flashback - home to criminals, nazis, general grousers, and regular trolls - have made it a spectator sport in the last year or so.

What is worrying is that a lot of otherwise sane people suddenly decide to join whatever group or cause obviously designed to attract as many people as possible, then becoming horrified as they realise that it's a fraud/joke.

I think that the trend (naïve social media users; trolls exploiting them) is best explained by a combination of factors. The most obvious one is that many people are still not used to how social network sites work. For Internet veterans, trolls and the way they use discussion fora to inferiorate people for laughs (or for profit) are familiar. For millions of people with a couple of years' experience of Facebook, they are an unknown property. For them, Facebook is made up of real people. Of course it is, but only to a certain extent.

Being unfamiliar with Internet discussion sites, they are unprepared for troll strategies and expect honesty from other participants. And as compassionate citizens, they cannot resist the urge to support a good cause and state their opinion. Why do people join groups stating that kittens are cute? Because they think so too! Why do people partake in web surveys? Because they want to make their voices heard. And it's so easy!

The Facebook trolls also use every feature possible to create the appearence of legitimacy. Graphics, proper language, links to major media outlets. The printed word has had a magic spell over people, at least in older times (before the Internet). "As seen on TV" is another one, mysteriously.

The final stroke is that people are invited to these groups by friends. People they trust. The social factor of social network sites can be put to use for unethical purposes.

So, I guess this is about growing up as social media users. Lesson learned: we should be careful. (Doesn't it sound banal when you spell it out like that?)

Digital literacy is something that we should not only teach our kids, but also ourselves (and probably, our parents). In this way, the troll groups and the media attention around it might lead to something good: self-education.

Also, to donate people money directly to the earthquake victims of Haiti instead of waiting for a secret sponsor to do it.

See also (in Swedish):