Skip to content
The Thin White Duke confronts Russian trolls, bots, Sergey Spigelglas and…who knows what else…
Bot or Troll?
Alternate AI illustration of this post #1
Alternate AI illustration of this post #2
Alternate AI illustration of this post #3
Bot or Troll?

Free Form Friday: A Duke Among Trolls, Bots and Russian Spies…

The image illustrating this post of a Bowie-like figure confronting trolls, a bot and a Russian spymaster was generated by AI for reasons that will be evident shortly

—-

War is politics by other means
– Attributed to Von Clausewitz

“Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Russia’s cyber efforts and online actors were able to influence public perceptions and sought to amplify mistrust in the electoral process,” according to an article on the Brookings Institution website titled, “Misinformation is eroding the public’s confidence in democracy.”* This observation is not at all unique to this article— a quick Google search will take you to articles, videos, and Senate committee reports documenting the phenomena.

The way the scheme works is that Russian or Russian-backed bots, trolls and spies infiltrate social media presenting themselves to be something they are not. They attempt to engage on an ostensible topic, and either fan radical sentiments or steer the conversation toward politics, only to sow distrust in the very concept of democratic governance and institutions. Democratic self governance cannot work without an engaged polity, and without democratic governments providing a counterbalance to autocrats, kleptocrats and demagogues, they are free to invade other countries, steal from their people and stay out of jail.

This week, I think I came face to face with a troll or bot or spy— or wannabe — employing this tactic operating within a Facebook group about David Bowie.

David Bowie? Isn’t that a stretch? What would a Russian troll be doing skulking around a Facebook group about David Bowie? What I think it (or he, or she) was doing is this— looking for anything, probably on many different seemingly apolitical social media sites, that intersects with politics in any way. So, I posted a link to a blog post on this very site, which, while primarily about Bowie at least acknowledged politics, or more specifically that some of the material Bowie addressed through his art has to do with politics. So the troll (I’m going to go with troll) went to work.

He (I’m going to go with “he”) posted an incoherent response using unusual words, fractured syntax and vague references. It was clearly an angry post, but it wasn’t specific. I (perhaps stupidly) responded with an attempt at humor— “So you liked the post,” or something like that. Thus began a back and forth in which the troll would not so much as mention anything I specifically wrote or said, and in fact made few coherent assertions at all, but seemed to be trying to steer the “discussion” away from Bowie and toward the idea that politics and/or government is inherently corrupt or otherwise without virtue. I understand that social media communication does not always adhere to strict grammar, but I think the incoherence of these posts were by design, to try to get me to start arguing with myself. It’s like the old trick of confronting someone you suspect of doing something, but not exactly knowing what, with, “Why did you do it?” See if the response turns out to be a confession.

I engaged for too long. I incorrectly assumed that the troll had an actual complaint about my actual post. I enjoy dialogue about David Bowie, especially with someone who has a different take than my own. But the troll made no actual assertions about Bowie, though he did work the word “Bowie” into some of his diatribes.

Eventually, I suspected that I was dealing with a bot. So I asked a bot, of a sort— ChatGBT, how do I know if I’m interacting with a bot? Chat gave me a long answer. Part of it was this:

Bots can be identified through several characteristics: Content Consistency: They often share repetitive content or follow specific patterns, posting similar messages, using the same hashtags, or linking to the same website frequently. Follower and Following Ratios: Bots may have an unusually high number of accounts they follow compared to their followers, or vice versa, and an oddly large or small follower count. Profile Information: Bots frequently have incomplete or generic profiles, lacking a profile picture, bio, or personal posts, and may use stock photos or images that appear elsewhere online. Engagement Style: Bots tend to generate generic or irrelevant comments that don’t fit the post’s context and respond instantly with predetermined responses. Language and Grammar: Bots often use awkward phrasing, poor grammar, or unusual syntax that doesn’t match typical human communication patterns.

That’s it! I was dealing with a bot. This exactly describes whatever it was I was interacting with. So, at that point, I stopped trying to coax out of the thing a coherent thought and started to have fun. The back-and-forth ended when I attempted a tactic I had heard about to out a bot— since it has to respond, ask it to do something nonsensical. My final response to the thing was gibberish. I was counting on the bot to respond to gibberish.

It didn’t respond. I wasn’t dealing with a bot.

I was dealing with a troll. A troll that was making a torrent of incoherent and false assertions at a very rapid pace, the point of which seemed to be to get me riled up to get me to stop trying to talk about David Bowie and instead rant about some yet-to-emerge political point in order to, by demonstration, undermine the legitimacy of the very idea of politics.

People don’t simply coexist. They either work out their differences through politics or force. The would-be gangsters and authoritarians of the world would prefer the latter means. It serves their interest to make “politics” a dirty word and the idea of even talking about politics to be unwholesome.

Related to this idea is the idea that reality is fluid. In one sense, this is not alien to a discussion about David Bowie. But while Bowie challenged our assumptions and societal norms, I don’t think the message of his art was that there is no truth. That simply wasn’t his point. It is, however very much on the authoritarian agenda.

In the present case, for instance, the troll accused me at one point about getting the message of Ziggy Stardust wrong. I hadn’t mentioned Ziggy Stardust at all in the post he was referring to. Later, he changed his own responses on Facebook to make it seem like I was responding to something different than I had been — so my responses would have seemed like non-sequiturs. And so on. Nothing is real. Truth is unknowable.

As Anne Applebaum wrote in her May, 2024 Atlantic* cover story, “The so-called fire hose of falsehoods—ultimately produces not outrage but nihilism. Given so many explanations, how can you know what actually happened? What if you just can’t know? If you don’t know what happened, you’re not likely to join a great movement for democracy, or to listen when anyone speaks about positive political change. Instead, you are not going to participate in any politics at all.”

—-

If you think about it, interacting with a human as if that human was a bot is very insulting. I seem to have gotten the troll angry and I backed it into a corner. By announcing that it had to respond to gibberish, it actually not being a bot, couldn’t respond without indeed seeming more like a bot. So, “he” blocked me, further edited the text of his original posts against me and reported me to the Facebook group administrator for violating nonexistent rules. The administrator contacted me, informed me of the complaint, and didn’t seem overly interested in the backstory. She just informed me of the complaint. I really hadn’t violated any rules but felt the urge to defend what I had posted as not being about political advocacy. The instinct was really not warranted because, even if my original post was political advocacy, so what? Being defensive about it would actually further the troll’s purpose.

On top of all that, though it actually wasn’t the point of the post in question, we should be talking to each other about politics. Art is often inseparable from politics. Picasso’s painting, Guernica should inspire talk about war (and Picasso wasn’t making a detached, non-partisan point, either). To suggest that a discussion of a Bowie song like, “Lady Stardust,” the subject of which is of indeterminate gender and references a “love I could not obey,” should be limited to the song’s melody and rhythm is as intentionally oblivious as pretending American history didn’t involve slavery. (Though the troll did not make specific reference to it, the song was used in the post in question to prompt a discussion of cultural shifts that set the stage for the legalization of same sex marriage in New York in 2011).

—-

So here’s the punchline. The troll’s fake name was “Menancious Spaegelgas.” The first name appears to be a derivation of the word, “mendacious,” meaning, “deceitful.” Spaegelgas—- Spaegelgas is more interesting. Spaegelgas Does not appear to be a regular word in any language. But do you know who had a very similar name? Sergey Spigelglas. That guy was a Soviet spymaster and head of the NKVD’s foreign intelligence service in 1938, known for his involvement in several high-profile assassinations.

So, it turns out that the troll was telling us who he was after all— a mendacious Russian wannabe spy. Bowie would have had fun with this one…

—-
* Click to link to the article

Back To Top