From Cold War to BURN WAR: Russia's Trolling of the West

Image by geralt on Pixabay

Image by geralt on Pixabay


It took a while, but the west eventually caught on. Over the past few years, we realized, Russia has been responsible for a systematic ‘information war’ against the US and Europe, designed to destabilise it from within and exert influence over its electoral processes to secure outcomes favourable to their own policies and world views. This Russian campaign has taken three forms: firstly, overt support for and links with far-right groups or individuals associated with right-wing parties and candidates, secondly, the hacking of party and personal email accounts to find usable information, and thirdly, a social media campaign to promote or suppress voting and increase domestic divisions.  

This is now widely-accepted and in the last few years academics have devoted themselves to analysing these electoral influence operations and messaging. The publishing floodgates are beginning to open, with important early analyses including superb texts by Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Cyberwar, 2018) and Benkler, Faris and Roberts (Network Propaganda, 2018). There are many other projects running at the moment, all designed to illuminate elements of Russian disinformation.

And this is where we might be missing something. Because although there is a common reference to Russian ‘trolling’ and the use of ‘troll-farms’ in these analyses, to date there hasn’t been any attempt to take this concept seriously. Most analysts still refer to Russian action as an ‘information war’, or ‘disinformation’ campaign. At best, there is a historical analysis that links these current activities back to Cold-War era psyops, ‘active measures’, ‘covert operations’ and Communist attempts at propaganda. None of this is wrong, but there’s something more going on here. Because what’s happening is the first coordinated example of troll-warfare. This is an attack by the first troll-state. This is Troll War I

There is obviously a long history of Russian and American propaganda and covert operations. Books such as Prados’President’s Secret Wars (1986) and Larry Hancock’s Creating Chaos(2018), detail their mutual attempts to influence each other’s nations and their global ideological fight for dominance during the Cold War. These were influence-operations deployed either within or outside of overt conflicts, using mass-media and a variety of other tools and techniques to penetrate and manipulate another nation’s informational ecology with the aim of pushing positions, ideas and activities that fit in with the perpetrating nation’s national agenda. There were limits to how successful these operations were, due to difficulties in accessing national mass-media, ensuring the distribution of the desired messages and even the problem of crafting messages that worked within specific cultures. But it is important to note how a lot of the tactics – especially creating disinformation, playing with reality, reputational exposure or attacks and the use of false identities – would become key parts of the online troll’s tool-kit decades later. This suggests we should see modern troll-warfare merely as an extension of these earlier covert activities.

But there’s one key difference that’s worth thinking about. We know about all these covert activities because, in a sense, they all failed: sooner or later they were exposed. As Hancock says, ‘Political warfare may be covert, it may be officially denied, but in reality, it is never truly deniable in terms of public perceptions’. When discovered, nation’s may bluff and posture, issuing adamant denials and accusing others of slurs, but few are fooled. ‘The consequence of that visibility is almost always a growing mistrust and suspicion’ (p.324). In short, when traditional operations were found out their efficacy was diminished, and so too were future operations. Troll war, however, works differently. 

So, yes, the Russian operations represent an extension and updating of traditional covert operations, but that isn’t all they are. More precisely they represent the meeting and merger of covert operations with internet culture, and, more specifically, with troll-culture and its tool-kit and tactics. This, as I’ll explain, leads to different conclusions. 

To begin further back, many nations responded to the early years of the internet by recognising its internal threat to established authorities and hierarchies and accordingly began attempts to censor it or to manipulate online content and political narratives (e.g. China’s ‘50-cent party’, with people paid to promote particular party lines). With the flowering of Web 2.0 by 2008 this became a more urgent task, and many nations began to develop their own social media units, or even domestic ‘troll-armies’. These were either used internally against political opponents (as in Turkey with its ruling-party ‘AK Trolls’) or were externally-focused to combat global information and promote national propaganda (think here of the IDF’s Twitter account and social media unit, through to the UK’s 77th Brigade social media unit). The April 2017 report, Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers, by the Oxford Computational Propaganda Research unit tracked online manipulation in 28 countries, but this should be seen as the tip of an iceberg. Is there any nation today that doesn’t attempt this kind of ideological control, internally or externally?


Russia obviously followed this path, with Putin moving from an early control of domestic television, to a later focus on the internet. The key moments were the 2011-13 Moscow opposition protests and 2013 Ukrainian protests which, for Putin, were the result of external – western – online manipulation. It was this ‘discovery’ that pushed Putin to a new concentration on online propaganda. If the 2013 ‘Gerasimov doctrine’ suggested what Russia was thinking, the 2014 Crimea coup and 2014-15 Ukrainian war demonstrated it in practice, with Russian propaganda not only being aimed at domestic but also at international audiences. The postmodern-smokescreen Russia’s reality-trolls tried to throw up around the Russian-downed aircraft MH17 was perhaps the best example of this. 

It is with the move to a full informational attack on the US and Europe, however, that Russia became a ‘troll-state’. Using state and private assets (the Internet research Agency ‘troll-farm’), Russia deployed the full range of contemporary troll tactics – the raid/brigade attack, baiting, time-wasting, playing with the real, sowing chaos and confusion, sock puppets and multiple fake identities, and subcultural referentiality to disrupt electoral processes and divide the public. Consider the hacking and release of party and personal emails. This type of theft was traditionally considered espionage. That which was hacked was valuable for intelligence and kept secret and pored over. In contrast the Russian state hackers leaked the emails immediately to Wikileaks for general distribution. This wasn’t espionage, this was trolling: Russia was using doxing as a tactic. 

So, when it was eventually realized Russia was responsible for an entire campaign against the west, traditionally this should have impacted upon them, causing a loss of face and a decline in the effectiveness of their operations. The entire campaign should have been undermined and future operations seen as compromised. Except this isn’t how it works now. When covert operations merge with troll-culture, things work differently. With trolling there are two key moments: the lulz and the burn. The lulz is the pleasure, the delight, the fun and humour of watching the trolling happen. It is the beauty of catching another, of observing how the bait has been taken and savouring the reaction. But this is never a private experience. The entire point of trolling is how those participating are unified in their activity. As the online Encyclopedia Dramatica only half-jokingly explains (not quite quoting Durkheim, but as-good-as): ‘Lulz is the one unifying force in the world. Those experiencing it are bonded mentally and emotionally. It is the greatest experience you will ever have’. 

But it isn’t only the lulz that is collective, so too is the outcome – the burn. The burn is the payoff, the humiliation, the take-down, the ownership (‘pwning’) of the other and that has to be visible. The entire point of trolling is that others at least recognise what’s happened and see and appreciate it. The burn (as the image-macro has it, ‘Apply water to burned area’) is temporal – it continues to sting. This is a post-rational, emotional mode of conflict, therefore, with a victory that is very different to that in traditional covert operations. There the desired victory was in content – the message that, it was hoped, would be absorbed by the targeted nation. Here, however, the real victory is in the form. Yes, Russia wanted its message to work, and it seemed to do so, but there was another game going on here at the level of form. Russia didn’t mind being found out; indeed, it was beneficial for their trolling to be discovered as the real victory is in the public awareness and appreciation of the other’s humiliation. 

Hence Russia’s bare-faced denials of manipulation are not the same denials as states offered in the past. Here there is a meta-level operating – that of snark– where Putin, knows we know, and knows also that the real victory is that everyone knows and that this enhances rather than diminishes his reputation. The fury of those attacked and attempts to hold Russia to account are not the aftermath of an operation but its perfect realization: the real moment of victory. This is Russia’s pwning of the west and revelling in the reveal. Putin’s trademark press conference smirk perfectly echoes ‘trollface’s’. Like trollface, he dances on the public stage taunting us with ‘U Mad, bro?’ We worried for a long time that the end of the Cold War might lead to a new Hot War with Russia. Instead it led to a new form of troll-warfare: Burn War. It’s one Russia is currently winning.

Andrew Hoskins