Feds Spend $499,571 to
‘Combat Online Trolling’

Project could help combat ‘troll armies’

computer
AP

The National Science Foundation is spending roughly half a million dollars to combat "online trolling."

A joint project by Northwestern and Northeastern universities is examining how to create "trolling-free environments" on the Internet. The researchers define online trolls as those who try to influence public opinion by boosting "misleading" and "inauthentic comments."

"Today, almost every browsing click that users make is collected by numerous trackers associated with a variety of online services (e.g., advertising networks, online social networks, e-commerce platforms)," a grant for the project states. "Users have often expressed concern about the lack of privacy and control over their personal data. Nonetheless, despite a substantial effort to expose and control this prevalent behavior, the reality is that users keep accepting updated online privacy policies, which in turn grant the gathering of more personal data."

"This project explores re-using this extensive tracking infrastructure for the benefits of both the users themselves and web services, with a goal of preventing online trolling (scenarios in which various groups deploy tactics to influence public opinion on the Internet, by leaving biased, false, misleading, and inauthentic comments, and then artificially amplifying their ratings)," the grant said. "The project aims to show how the tracking infrastructure can be re-used as a user ‘fingerprint,’ allowing a lightweight and privacy-preserving form of identification for third-party web sites."

The leading researchers on the project, Northwestern University’s Aleksandar Kuzmanovic and Northeastern University’s Alan Mislove, told the Washington Free Beacon that their work could help combat "troll armies" used by Russia and China.

"Public opinion is of paramount importance in any society," they said. "It is thus not a surprise that many governments, political parties, and various other groups deploy tactics to influence public opinion on the Internet, a practice commonly referred to as trolling."

"Likely the most well-known example is Russia’s ‘troll army,’ a government sponsored group of thousands of paid bloggers that work round the clock to flood the comments sections of western publications, ‘raging at the depravity and injustice of the west,’" Kuzmanovic and Mislove said.

The researchers pointed to documents leaked by Edward Snowden that showed the United Kingdom government attempting to influence YouTube comments, and political parties in India hiring people to post favorable comments about them on social media.

"The Chinese government is also believed to run a so-called ‘50-cent army,’ while more than 20,000 people are engaged in Ukraine’s "information army," they said.

Kuzmanovic and Mislove said online trolling is not limited to political propaganda, but also corporations such as Amazon battling fake reviews on their websites.

"Common for all the above trolling scenarios is not just a fake and biased content; such comments are further ‘amplified’ by voting, a feature often misused by online trollers," they said. "Resolving the problem of online trolling is therefore fundamentally important for the future of the Internet. Indeed, organized trolling has already become a serious problem, and some argue that it can have a profound impact on the society. While resolving versions of this problem in the past has been done in the context of individual systems, resolving the problem comprehensively at the Internet-scale is of paramount importance for the future of the Internet."

The study has received two grants in the amounts of $250,234 and $249,337, totaling $499,571. The research is set to begin Oct. 1 and is slated to continue through 2019.