Jenna Abrams is in fact a Russian troll. Haven’t heard of her? She had an account on Twitter that was alt-right before that euphemism for neo-Nazis drew broad recognition. And now, according to reporting in The Daily Beast, it turns out that she was a Internet Age version of Lieutenant Kizhe, the imaginary officer in a Russian story who was created in a clerical error and promoted rank by rank by the tsar until he had to be killed off to explain why he couldn’t be produced in the flesh. This time, it was the current authoritarian leader in Moscow who directed the formation.
The Jenna Abrams account is one that I ran across from time to time. As a humanist, progressive, and supporter of gun rights, I get into a lot of arguments on Twitter (@gregcampnc). Should I have spotted “her” as a fake?
This is a realization of the concept raised by Alan Turing, one of the key founders of modern computing. What would it take for a machine to convince a human interrogator that it is itself human? In fiction, this shows up in the Blade Runner films, a means of deciding how meaty the robot in front of us is.
I mention meat robots because the quality of humanity is difficult to define. In scientific terms, we are solidly in the animal kingdom with genetic, morphological, and behavioral links to our various relatives. If we were created a little lower than God, as the original Hebrew in the Psalms says, no test has been devised to detect that. With that in mind, what are we to do when confronted with an account on-line that is suspect?
Some trolls are easy to spot. A few are clearly robotic without even the attempt to make them look human, while others do nothing but spew insults and filth or make ridiculous statements that don’t show any commitment to participate in a rational discourse.
But there’s a broader point that is getting lost in all the outrage — justified as it is — about Russian interference in our politics, and that’s the fallacies of the ad hominem attack and the faulty appeal to authority. Imagine that you are talking to a paid shill working in the Kremlin. Yes, it’s best if all parties in a conversation are honest with each other, but it’s the ideas that matter ultimately.
And this is the responsibility of citizens of a free country, to evaluate ideas on their own merits, regardless of who’s offering them. Is that easy? No. But leading isn’t easy, and citizens are the leaders. We loan power to our elected representatives periodically, but in the long term, the nature of our society is up to us. The only way to make this work is if we’re informed and able to analyze information critically. If we do our jobs — our hard, but necessary jobs — Jenna Abrams, or whatever name the trolls use next, can present whatever claims that Vladimir Putin wants us to see, and we’ll be ready for them.
Or we can let members of Congress impose unconstitutional controls on social media in the hope that busywork will save us. The choice is ours, whether as a nation we’ll pass the Turing test or not.
For more of my writing, with characters who are themselves all too human, go here.