Impersonator Trolls 101
How impersonator trolls trick us into hating each other.
2 min read
Journalists and researchers alike are trying to document and record the dynamics of how impersonator trolls pretend to be members of 'other' communities and spread hatred among groups.
In the US, journalists have revealed several instances where white supremacists create accounts with stereotypical Jewish names and stolen photographs to create fake profiles. They spew hate and try to pit minority communities against each other.
Yitzchak Besser argues that the impersonation of members of a particular community happens with intentions to “disparage, malign, spread misinformation about, and/or incite hatred against” that community. It is a form of sockpuppetry, and a user assumes identities to defame them.
The impersonator steals pictures from others to use as avatars/profile pictures.
These stolen pictures characteristically have identity markers such as a hijab or skullcap. They then create profiles with names explicitly identifying with a community and fill out the about section with phrases that affirm communal belonging.
These impersonator trolls then insert themselves in conversations with many followers or viewers.
They then say extremely racist or communal things, giving an impression to a casual, unsuspecting reader that members of the community are highly bigoted.
V. T. Balram, a member of the Indian National Congress (INC) and former Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Kerala, called out, in 2021, a comment posted on a YouTube video reporting the case of flooding in central Kerala. A profile with an explicitly Muslim-sounding name and a green flag as the profile picture typed a comment in the spoken accent of Kerala’s Malabar region expressing wonder whether flooding in Christian majority areas is god’s punishment and praying for the well-being of Muslims.
Such instances of posting communally-charged comments in the live chats section of YouTube and people flocking in to respond are now becoming common in Kerala’s digital public sphere. The digital platforms and the anonymity they seemingly offer encourage individuals to spew hate with confidence and impunity.
The use of computational propaganda for political purposes is being studied by academia widely and globally. Scholars have studied and demonstrated how the publicness of public opinion is now being hijacked by bots, trolls and other actors with vested interests. Against such a backdrop, attempts and policy initiatives to sensitize the public on digital media literacy should also emphasize how impersonator trolls with malicious intentions manipulate us into hating each other.