The open internet faces one of its most significant dangers as national governments begin exploiting its biggest weakness – a lack of monitoring and accountability.
The Internet Research Agency, or IRA, is probably the most striking example which features pro-Kremlin propaganda and purchases hundreds of dollars of fake messages and spreads these across the internet and social media.
According to the Center For International Media Assistance, the attacks, particularly by oppressive states, are increasing.
In its Global Network Initiative report, it says "2016 saw a spike in government-mandated disruptions of communications networks and internet services (such as social media, search engines, or news sites) around the world".
"Disruptions are often used during times of political unrest or in the lead-up to elections, and many occur in developing economies and emerging democracies," it warned.
Tracking has increased by agencies aware of the dangers faced in democratic nations by those linked to violent or oppressive regimes. One of the websites which is taking cash in exchange for selling automatic "bots" or automatic internet trolls is Buyacc.
Most purchasing bots and auto-trolls here use the Russian email service, Mail.RU, according to the addresses found on the website home page.
Buying Facebook bots courtesy of mail.ru or buyaccs.
This company, which resides on the fringes of the dark web, features payment options for thousands of Facebook and other social media accounts in order to exploit messaging. That's according to the Center for International Media Assistance. It also warns that internet and social media companies are not transparent in operations, which makes it easier for trolls to attack companies, individuals and countries abusing the concept of the open and uncontrolled internet.
Not only has the troll army been automated, but Facebook has just admitted that an operation it believes is based inside Russia spent $100,000 on thousands of ads promoting divisive social and political messages in a two-year period, which spanned the 2016 US election.
Facebook reports it found at least 470 inauthentic accounts and pages that were connected to one another and were likely linked to a Russian company.
"In reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 – associated with roughly 3,000 ads," Facebook's chief security officer Alex Stamos said in a blog update.
Facebook says another $50,000 went to more than 2,000 "potentially politically related" ads and might have been bought by Russians. The organisation says these could be in violation of US election law.
It suggests the following, that:
The dominant internet companies should be more transparent about how they decide on content issues.
The start-ups of today should consider the lessons of the recent past.
Twitter (and the telecoms, and other ICT companies) should join the Global Network Initiative. (A much broader industry base is needed for the initiative to have an impact.)
The Global Network Initiative should toughen up.
To the users: pay attention and weigh in.
What is concerning believers in open communication is the fact that early users of social media believed they were indulging in a revolution. The free access and publishing of information was a heady mix. However, the system which allows people to comment anonymously and share material personally means that those with a small budget and focused hate messages can change a dialogue.
As the abuse has grown, hacking groups previously indulging in supporting these trolls are now turning against the individuals directly implicated.
The website darkpsychology has identified trolls as easy to manipulate. National interest has also come into play, with countries such as Russia, China and Rwanda purposefully hiring men and women to skew conversations and digital debate using state funds.
Most often male.
Can be an obsessive personality.
Wants to cause harm to others using digital methods.
Uses the internet to deliver and distribute harmful information.
Is technically aware and savvy but socially inept and border-line criminal.
Has few friends and tends to gravitate towards online friendships that are warped emotionally and intellectually.
Is personally susceptible to propaganda and believe they're influential.
They have a psycho-pathological need to experience power through harming others.
They have problems controlling anger and suffer from a slew of mental problems.
They alienate themselves from their own actions when harm occurs, tending to blame victims – they have grandiose beliefs in themselves and then online exhibit a lack of empathy, have minimal capacity to experience shame or guilt and behave with callousness and a grandiose sense of self.
They are developmentally immature, tend to be chronically isolated and have had minimal to no intimate relationships.
This new troll war has its players. One is Russian TV which has described international media as the enemy of the Moscow state. “It’s not enough that there are hundreds of Western newspapers, TV channels, websites and radio stations, all beaming the same take on what is going on in the world. The UK has created a 1,500-strong army unit to, among other things, fight Russia in the social media space," it said in an editorial.
Individuals have also begun to purchase armies of automated trolls and bots. Martin Shkreli, the infamous "parma bro" trolled journalists who tweeted about him by purchasing internet domains related to their names.
He has had his bail revoked after tweeting that he was seeking a hair follicle from Hillary Clinton which was presumed a call to violence.
The New York Times and other publishers have reported on internet troll armies which are automated using very simple algorithms and costing a few hundred dollars. For example, $116 will buy you tens of thousands of Twitter follows and Facebook likes.