Friday, March 02, 2018

Hunting Russian trolls, a field guide

How do you identify a Russian troll? It is simple, really. Scott Shane caught one by just noticing that the activist’s English was a little odd. It is a form of simple linguistic analysis, and it works. You may not know, but linguistic analysis was critical in catching the Unabomber. But you don’t have to be a linguist to catch a troll, because they are not as smart as Ted Kaczynski.

No matter how proficient one gets with a second language, the first language always “seeps in.” Unless you were lucky to grow up fully bilingual, the native language’s syntax and idioms will inevitably show up in your second language writing. The troll factory in Saint Petersburg is a massive operation, and they simply cannot afford to hire truly fluent people, or even reasonably smart people. Shane also shows that Americans who bought into Russian trolling efforts are, well, less than brilliant. So the troll infection is a case of the dumb leading the dumber.

Here is a few tips on how to spot a native Russian speaker who is trying to pass for an American:

  1. Because our language does not have articles, their use does not come naturally to us. My friend once told me, “You do not even hear articles.” That is true, Russian speakers tend to filter them out as noise, and that is why we are slow to learn article usage as adults. Besides, English has a whole class of article use that is purely conventional, especially in geographic names (The Hague, but simply Paris, for example). There is a whole slew of exceptions (you go to school, but go to the hospital) that simply needs to be memorized. Either missing or overused articles will point to the Russian origin of the author.
  2. The written form of Russian tends to have longer, more convoluted sentence structure, with dependent clauses placed at strange places. Russians are more likely to use awkward passive constructions. They may be grammatically correct, but not common. A Russian sentence has a free word order, and we tend to recreate this kind of variety of sentence structure in English. It often looks unnecessary complex. 
  3. Watch for weird idioms. If they do not quite make sense, they have probably been borrowed from another language. 
  4. Prepositions are very important and nuanced in English, while Russian has grammatical cases to express the same syntactic relationships, so Russians pay less attention to prepositions. Misuse of prepositions is a common error, because Russians will tend to remember the root of a verb, and ignore which prepositions modify it. Or else, they will simply transpose the Russian equivalent preposition into an English sentence. For example “it depends from.”
  5. Russian punctuation is somewhat different. Watch for extra commas where you do not expect them to be. For example, look for restrictive relative clauses surrounded by commas. However, an intro clause in the beginning of a sentence will not have a comma in Russian. For example, my instinct would be to write: “In the second decade of 21st century social media was weaponized by both foreign powers and internal political parties.”
  6. Watch for false cognates: A Russian may call guerrillas partisans. Similarly, a Russian may place a real English word in a wrong style. For example, in English, “banal” would be more of a high style, while “trivial” – medium. In Russian, banal is a bit more colloquial than trivial. The out-of-style usage will often give away a non-native writer, although native speakers may do the same thing on occasion. 
There are hundreds of thousands of native Russian speakers in the States. So when your Facebook feed shows someone with a typical American name, radical ideas, improbable stories, and strange writing patterns, ask your Russian friend or colleague to read it. In many cases, an educated Russian will spot errors, idioms, and stylistic moves that we all make.

There is also a non-linguistic telltale sign: the trolls have daily quota. They will spam your Fb and Twitter feeds a lot. They completely dominate forums with their incessant postings. No one can have that much free time for real. The trolls will also try to bait you, to challenge and, well, troll you, because the engagement rate is also important in their daily quota.

Good hunting! Let me know if you need help. Remember, they are not that bright, and we collectively can weed them all out. Troll hunting is a group sport. Yes, Facebook and Twitter should do more to track down both trolls and bots. However, the engaged citizens should also be a part of the new immune system to fight the weaponized social media. It is a relatively new phenomenon, so it may look scary. I think it helps to take a lighter look at this troll thing, to laugh at it a little, so we can figure out ways of fighting it.

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