January 10, 2019  |  Updated February 13, 2019

Troll up Your Sleeves: Using Research to Uncover State-Sponsored Harassment Online

By Nick Monaco

The abuse of modern telecommunications technologies by governments is capturing headlines the world over: the 2017 Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example, helped put digital disinformation squarely on the public agenda. But state-sponsored trolling—a new form of human rights abuse using online hate and harassment campaigns (often by people, but sometimes automated) to intimidate and silence voices critical of the state—remains an underappreciated threat to journalists around the world. In 2017 alone, at least forty-six journalists were killed for their reporting; at least one of these journalists, Daphne Caruana-Galizia, was subjected to state-sponsored online harassment in the lead-up to her death.

A recent report from the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab, State-Sponsored Trolling: How Governments are Deploying Disinformation as part of Broader Digital Harassment Campaigns, explores this new problem and some possible solutions. This report was the result of a collaborative effort over the past few years from a coalition of researchers, including Camille FrançoisCarly Nyst, and contributors from the International Press Institute and Global Voices. The report explores several legal and technological solutions to the problem. However, while policy recommendations offer a promising means of addressing the negative aspects of modern communications technologies, they are mid-to-long-term solutions. As such, they risk failing to meet the immediate needs of those facing vitriolic, coordinated digital harassment and persecution.

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