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How Secret Online Armies Crush Dissent

A new report reveals state-sponsored terror campaigns
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 22, 2018 4:00 PM CDT
This undated photo shows investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.   (The Malta Independent via AP)
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(Newser) – Before dying by car bomb last October, Maltese journalist Daphne Galizia was swamped with online threats. She even hesitated to keep reporting on issues like government corruption and the Panama Papers. "The dehumanization by the time she was killed around that period was complete," says her son Paul. It turns out that Galizia, like many reporters and activists worldwide, was targeted by a government-backed troll army designed to intimidate and discredit her in a cyber-world with few enforceable boundaries, Bloomberg reports. A new report by a global research group shows how countries are using such trolls to squelch dissent, often via fake social-media accounts, using various kinds of labor—like party youth groups, volunteer armies, government workers, or paid contractors who specialize in trolling.

In India, Prime Minister Modi's BJP Party apparently had a troll farm threatening opponents with "slaughter" during the 2014 election. In Turkey, President Erdogan's party lured critics into downloading software that secretly monitored their communications and movements, per AccessNow. Similar online horrors have cropped up in Ecuador, Venezuela, and—with Russian trolling against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election—the US as well. Which raises the question: Why now? Evidence suggests that countries are sharing information and learning how to cover their tracks. "That's the genius of these types of attacks," says an author of the global report by the Institute for the Future. "It's hard to distinguish between what's being manufactured on purpose and what is a popular uprising of opinion against the target." (See how a text message ended Galizia's life.)

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