Toxicity and Truth on Today's Internet

For the last two years, it has become obvious that there is a tone of insincerity in the  toxicity of comments and posts online. There's always been an edge of risk, but lately it's become so toxic out there, that if you shared your thoughts, the response was very likely to be overly harsh and judgemental.  And in an Orwellian twist, a "conspiracy theory", that it was due to the Russian paid trolls, turned out to be true... even while they turned out to be promoting other, false, conspiracy theories.  It's enough to make your head spin!

In the first few years of the internet, the old BBS/college culture of the internet(s) made space for itself on the new open "www" network.  It was a culture that appreciated amusement and dabbled in trolling, but it wasn't directed at any goal, just people talking.

Recently the toxicity of the internet has been given cover by the attitude that such trash talking was just normal people talking.  Actually it wasn't.  It was paid trolls from a foreign country.The increase in harshness was felt by people who experienced the younger more chaotic internet.  We knew it was wrong somehow, but couldn't put our finger on it.  For one thing, too much harshness was not socially acceptable on the young internet, and for another it was harder to be anonymous.

The original meaning of trolling is "trolling for newbies" --  that is, saying something intentionally confusing with the goal of exposing the inexperience or naivete of the new users of the BBS/internet.  So the use of the term trolling is perfectly suited for the current situation.  We were a complacent culture that assumed our social illnesses would fix themselves in time, but now that kind of optimism is not reasonable.

Bulletin Board Systems were inherently NOT private.  One user at a time could connect to a server in someone's home.  Anything you were reading could be echoed on the screen of the "sysop" (the person who operated the server).   We've come a long way since BBS's, but the demands of marketing have led to ever more loss of privacy online.  Today it's not only the sysop that can track you, but nearly anyone who can make a tracker and add it to an advertisement.  As our privacy was erased, and larger groups of people gained access to the data about us, especially on social media, it gave malicious actors a chance to cause unrest.

So enough of history, what's happening today is best summarized in an in depth article featured in Foreign Policy.  Against such a background as this, the two reports seem more like a skirmish, but it's not a minor one. 

The competition for digital political power isn’t just among sovereigns. There’s a growing trend toward technonationalism, expressed in the tendency to treat privately owned technology platforms as political agents of the country in which they were founded. In an age where Facebook is more populous than China, Cambridge Analytica affects more elections than any political party, and Palantir collects more intelligence than Interpol, the term “superpower” no longer need apply solely to governments. We are entering a multipolar world where internet powers need not be sovereign and multilateralism may also need to be multitrack. Large companies from the United States and China resemble empire builders, projecting their influence through domestic or state-owned technology companies.

These categories are intentionally broad and overlapping, as are the digitalpolitik philosophies and tactics employed by sovereign governments to consolidate power through digitization. Without harmonizing institutions, the internet’s warring states are engaged in a brinkmanship approach to policy evolution, where each proposal is both progress and an extraterritorial incursion.   
--  from "The War Torn Web"  Foreign Policy, Dec. 19, 2018

1.  You might also want to consider how much of the news you read is now robotically generated news.  Since the first area that extensively uses robot-generated news is financial news, I'd think there's a fairly big vulnerability there.  The tiniest good/bad news and markets react.  Being especially watchful for manipulated financial news is warranted. 

2.  The New Yorker Magazine has a two part article (February 18th and 25th, 2019) on influence of US elections that's *not* coming from Russia, as well as how those influence firms (formerly, Public Relations firms) are used to influence the online conversation about corporate assets.  For example, I can guess that vaccines and GMO's have benefited from this online spin doctoring. Talk to someone who doesn't get online much, about those issues and see the difference. PR and spin doctoring is not new, but there are new avenues for intruding into people's lives and disseminating a skewed narrative.   Read More at The New Yorker

The Reports

Two reports on the influence of Russia's propaganda machine, have been published.  One  report is from Oxford in the UK (PDF), the other from a research firm, New Knowledge (PDF), who were hired by the US Senate Intelligence Committee (PDF).  It's no longer a "maybe" but a fact that the Russians have been tampering with our online experience, with an eye toward polarizing our politics, opinions, and boosting President Trump's image while vilifying Secretary of State Clinton and her family.  The reports specify, that it's outside their scope to decide if election influence happened, but the reports could be used as evidence in any such allegation.
 By the way, there is an appendix for the Oxford report which contains the screenshots.  It has to be downloaded separately.  

From a local perspective, our own Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is chair of the US-SIC.  Regardless where you stand on the spectrum of political thought, he represents you, so I think we should tell him what we think of this new information.

From a medical perspective, I didn't see a lot of medical messages in the "most shared" lists, but 'Gluten Free' was almost certainly trolled in this way.  It wasn't a priority but then, there are a lot of health subjects and this is just one. All the same, there were regular articles downplaying the importance of Celiac disease testing or the effects of gluten.  It could've been driven by Russian paid-trolls, but I think it was more likely driven by the food industry (and I doubt if it will stop now or ever). 

I did see a few messages in the "top 10" screenshots that related to the "body positive movement" which helps women especially, to feel better about how long it takes to lose weight, and how difficult it is, and how they look if they haven't succeeded in losing weight. It also promotes a body acceptance attitude that can free women from yoyo dieting and all the health risks associated with it.

So health, at least weight loss, are important to the Russian influence machine for some reason.  Maybe just because we have such a panic area around fatness and aging.  And if there is a larger influence program around medicine, I'd guess it's targeting our bureaucracies which set policy, not random comments and posts on social media.  Social media doesn't set policy in medicine so it would make no sense to target medicine from there.  If we want to find out about it, a separate study needs to take place.

What can we do?

The first thing to do is acknowledge that we have important divisions in our society.  This is like getting a free psychological analysis from a hostile psychologist. It will be brutally honest, it's intended to hurt, and yet, it provides useful information.  We should take that information and make our society stronger.  It's Christmas, do you have a neighbor who is different from you racially or culturally?  Say hello or send them a card.  Are you interacting online more than you are on the phone or in person anymore?  Try to reverse that.  Send real Christmas cards this year, if you can.

I noticed in the past few years that nobody ever sends me a picture anymore, not even in email.  And for a while I was on Facebook but I noticed very quickly how toxic it was.  Yet I put off leaving Facebook because I was so glad to see pictures of my relatives and their kids.  It would be great to feel safe on Facebook, but I don't.
We can reduce the influence of the Internet, and especially make the elderly feel more included by sharing our "posts" on paper with some of our friends and relatives.   These platforms will improve eventually in safety and toxicity.  But who wants to miss 5 years of their grandchild's pictures while they wait for improvements?  

Engage more in person, or in ways that don't involve screens. You don't have to do what I did, that is, get off of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (celebrities recently limited their online contact as well).  But try to remember that there is a mail system, and an email system, and at least in email, you have access to the email headers so it's easier for a good email company to filter out junk.  It's important to pay for email if the company you use does its own maintenance of blacklists and whitelists, and junk mail filtering.  Learn how to use BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) to send email greetings that do not expose everyone's email to everyone else.

Here's one private email company that I like, although there are others. Be careful of encryption systems in email.  They can confuse friends and relatives.

Most important, respect those who choose not to participate.  We have our reasons, whether it's moral outrage over the lack of proper controls, or because some of us are too old.  Too old for what?  To learn to type, learn to use a phone or ipad, then learn to use the internet, and then after all that, learn how to use Facebook and Twitter.  And now, we have to deal with online trolls too.  Elderly people have better things to do than "get online."  When you expect them to get on Facebook so they don't "miss out" you're asking a lot. And they definitely don't need the toxic trolling memes. Nobody does.

I think the main reason privacy is such an issue is that people aren't fixed immobile entities.  Over the course of my life I've changed my mind about many things (veganism for example).  People grow and change.  A white supremacist today can have an epiphany tomorrow, or the reverse may occur to a human rights activist.  We can't treat opinions as fixed and absolute, because it denies the humanity of those who hold them.  People aren't billboards for memes. If the purpose of lack of privacy is to find out something negative so you have an excuse to ostracize someone, then it should be obvious why we need privacy.   
At the end of the New Knowledge report:  "Finally, we hope that additional sections of this data set will be released to the public for further research. There are millions of posts, hours of video, and hundreds of thousands of memes, and additional eyes will undoubtedly continue to provide valuable insights into this operation. "
Hear hear!  I'm suspicious that many health narratives have been affected by this propaganda machine.  For one thing, people have a bona fide need for opiate pain medications, and far too much media attention has been focused on what I consider to be a manufactured travesty, while largely ignoring the methamphetamine problem.  You're not going to tell grandma to tough it out and suffer instead of take pain meds.  Ditto all the people with a lifelong painful illness like rheumatism. Do we need to be responsible?  Yes.  Do we need to terrify doctors until they refuse to help patients?  No.

The online chronic illness narratives that are sometimes unhelpful and scammy instead of providing valuable information, are another area.  I saw someone who volunteered that he was Russian, try to start a  thread (a conversation that takes place on an online forum)  about how biotin cures ME/CFS.  There was definitely something off about his post but I still can't put my finger on why.  As someone with the illness, purified biotin reduces my ability to function.  It's possible he was perfectly sincere, but I'm not sure enough to apply his suggestion.

Even Google+ health communities are full of... well they're often full-of-it. I can't really think that people are making money from those posts, so the incentive must be something else. To support delusional thinking perhaps?  To gather identity theft data from people ordering scammy e-books about health? Maybe. Certainly it fits the behavior pattern of the trolls to attempt to promote delusional and inaccurate thinking. And it seems to reinforce the narrative that our institutions are not to be trusted, so that's a second reason for my suspicion.
As much as I appreciate alternative medicine, and I believe much of it is helpful,  I think we need to be cautious about being too open to everything we find online.
As much as I suspect that mainstream medicine doesn't want to seek answers, I insist on giving it a chance to do so.  I brought my ME/CFS symptoms to an Infectious Disease specialist recently.  The result did not surprise me, but I felt it was essential that I try. Even if we dissent, we must give mainstream medicine a chance and continue communicating with it.  It will improve because it must. 
Are the vegans affected?  Their community seems to have been taken over in the past several years by a virulent and absolutist strain of thought, even declaring that protein is not an important nutrient and nobody has protein deficiency.  Well not to burst that bubble, but people with Celiac and other gut illness, they *do* have that deficiency.  Lots of people who have been seeking health for a long time remember when the vegans were a peaceful hippy holdover group.  We even joined them.  So hardly anyone wants to be cruel to them.  They're like a dream that turned into a nightmare.

In effect, I'm suspicious of all extreme opinions, even extremely mainstream ones, like those that claim we should only ever go to a family doctor with any health issue, and all supplements and vitamins are scams.

The Bottom Line on Health Sincerity

What about sincerity when discussing health online?  It's become a minefield as well.  But is it "the Russians"?  Well, probably not directly.  I think corporations are taking advantage of the situation. With an atmosphere of suspicion, it gives people with an agenda cover to blame others for their actions.  For instance, pharmaceutical and other companies have been caught several times editing Wikipedia to their own marketing advantage. Occasionally, this erupts into blog comment wars and one group or other is blamed.

An example would be the recent rash of page removals from Wikipedia of the members of THINCS, a union of doctors from several countries, who debate the value of statins.  I witnessed a blog comments argument that prominently featured supposed "vegans" who proudly declared they were responsible.

I even believed it at first.  Except they didn't sound like vegans, but more like these paid trolls we keep hearing about (and are now documented in the reports above).  But it still didn't make sense.  Why would the Russians want to support the use of statins worldwide by attempting to discredit doctors who are simply calling for more science into what truly causes heart disease - if cholesterol doesn't?  It doesn't fit.  But what does fit is to assume that it's big pharma influencing public opinion, and using the vegans as cover, on the assumption that cholesterol skeptics and vegans don't like each other.  Now, that finally makes sense.

What I believe is that much of the toxicity may have been fueled by foreign forces, but I think domestic corporations have taken advantage, especially in medicine.   Think of it this way, who has the most to gain from discrediting home-remedy and self-responsibility movements?  Such as, homesteading, voluntary (not Celiac required) gluten free living, Pacing for ME/CFS( instead of GET), the right to choose the diet suited to your health (low fat, low carb, or other), herbal tea that helps you, or choosing as much Organic as you can afford?  Supplements are already a big profit center for pharmaceutical companies, except for the much maligned Acupuncturists who still stick to using traditional herbs or Ayurveda practitioners. 

Organic farmers are usually small operations, except for a few unions of farmers that give us reliable products nationally like Organic Valley, Smart Chicken, and Dr. King's packages of Organic ground beef and bison.  But what happens?  Along comes the "quality of life" ratings from Whole Foods and we're lulled into a sense of wholesomeness by imagining a happy animal in a free range field, ignoring that it may be eating GMO alfalfa or GMO grains, chock full of glyphosate whose health effects are currently being outed.  Then we have the next attack on Organic with Grass Fed.  We're told that these animals were fed no grain, only grass.  But corn is a grass.  It's a giant grass.  So, all right, it was fed only grass.  Was it organic grass?  Was it GMO grass?  Did it have a life that included sunshine and open air?

The Organic standard is still the best guide to nutritious food. Let's not be confused about that. I think the USDA website is hard to use, so this is what Oregon Tilth has to say about organic labeling.
I think grass fed is important for beef cattle.  But it's just one data point. 
I think access to outdoors is important for all food animals, but it's just one data point. 
Organic is designed to ensure that the nutrition that came to us, from old school farming, is still there in today's food.  And ensures that everything, from the soil  that grows the grass, up to the meat packing, is organic.. soup to nuts.  Is it hard?  Yes.  But it's nothing less than every human being on earth deserves.

There are seven billion human beings worldwide, now.  Let's stop wasting time demoralizing each other with disinformation, and start figuring out how to provide clean food for all.  Anything else is abdication of duty.

We Are Strong & Always Were

Socially, I think we need to appreciate the actions we've already taken as Americans to right the wrongs in our society, and provide for each other  (the ACA, the Civil Rights Act,  the March for Families, for LGBT and for Women).  And that will give us the courage to move forward, toward an even more equal and respectful society. If we move toward compassion, we can take pride in that.  There's nothing weak about helping each other, just ask any caregiver how much strength it takes to care for just one person.We know what to do, and are strong enough to do it. Take heart, we're hardly the first society ever, to have some problems to work out.

And let's not forget one of the best antidotes to toxic people is humor:


  1. If you don't know what to write to Senator Burr or any other representative, just write what you think. As usual, after writing, I am worried that my request will be seen as naive, or not forceful enough. But for many reasons I choose to write what I think, not make specific demands when communicating with officials.

    His contact page is here:

    Please write to him or another government official that you trust about this matter, and don't worry about being perfect about it. We aren't billboards for ideology. We have every right to be heard.


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