Trolling in New Hampshire

When the time came, I was going to raise my hand to ask Beto O’Rourke about my hobby: information manipulation

WINDHAM — Sometimes, InTeRnEt TrOlLs WrItE LiKe ThIs. While most people find this practice to be highly annoying and a little bit creepy, it does draw attention, and that's interesting. In fact, the online world contains many things that are at once annoying, creepy, and interesting.

Although these would be less than ideal characteristics in, say, a spouse or a pet, it's a great combination if you're looking for something to analyze.

That's why I collect information and stories that emerge from the cesspools of cyberspace. It's a hobby. Some people crochet in their spare time. Some people raise chickens. I spend my leisure time picking apart Kremlin troll tweets and perusing reports about information manipulation.

It's hard to say which is more surreal, the tweets or the reports.

The reports, written mostly by government analysts from North America and Europe, make statements like, “Our investigation is the product of an awareness of the existential danger that information manipulation poses to our democracies.” That's how analysts say, “I'm about to wet my pants over this, but I couldn't sound alarmed if I were inside a burning building during an earthquake, so drink a few cups of coffee before you continue reading.”

By the time you get to the part about the Russian TV station trying to pay Swedish teens to pretend they're rioting, you're not entirely sure that you haven't fallen asleep and started dreaming.

* * *

On the other extreme are the Kremlin tweets, which are no less difficult to follow but for totally different reasons, like content and grammar.

On the subject of the CIA, for instance, one November 2016 tweet read, “BREAKING : CEO with Ties to the CIA Reveals he Plans to Kill President-Elect Trump with a Sniper Rifle.” And there was this gem: “You have open documents in Congress library where told how CIA meddled in politicis life of ther countries.”

The nice thing about my hobby is that I don't have to spend any money on things like yarn or chicken wire.

The downside is that it isn't very soothing.

I can't go to sleep anymore without dreaming about rooms where whole walls and parts of ceilings suddenly aren't there, leaving the occupants exposed to venomous creatures, weapons of war, and the occasional hedgehog.

Actually, it was the hedgehogs that finally drove me to act. You know it's time to address your anxiety when you start to feel threatened by tiny creatures whose only defense mechanism is to roll up into a ball and look like a sea urchin.

That's why I decided to sneak into New Hampshire. I would take advantage of its early primary-state status to see if the presidential candidates had any plans for dealing with online creepery.

It isn't an issue that ranks high among voter priorities, so, I reasoned, the only way to find out would be to track a candidate down and ask them myself.

* * *

There is nothing illegal per se about someone from Vermont crossing the border into New Hampshire to see what the latest crop of candidates is up to, but it feels kind of like you're stealing a can of wax beans out of the food bank collection basket at the grocery store. I proceeded with the utmost caution.

Stopping at a store to use the restroom, I bought a bag of chips that I didn't want in order to legitimize my toilet use. Then when the clerk asked whether I was a member of the store's loyalty program, I replied by handing him a card that explained why I don't join loyalty programs. (Their purpose is to collect and profit from customers' data. It has nothing to do with loyalty.)

When I arrived at the bridge that would take me over the border, I slid in behind a group of nefarious-looking motorcycle enthusiasts who I hoped would draw the attention of any bored Saturday-morning cops away from me, lest one pull me over and ask about my destination. It worked. I arrived without incident.

I had decided to place my immediate hopes on Beto O'Rourke, mostly because he holds a lot of events. It wasn't difficult to find one of his to go to. He also doesn't charge admission or “cost per plate,” or whatever they're calling it these days.

Despite my troll-induced pessimism, I had hoped that Beto would say something to make me feel better. He was, after all, under 30 when the World Wide Web came into being, and he seemed capable of using social media to his advantage instead of the other way around.

On the other hand, as I wandered around looking for a place to sit, trying not to spill my iced tea on any genuine New Hampshirites, I wondered whether O'Rourke's credentials amounted to nothing more than youth and charisma, as some commentators had theorized.

* * *

I spotted a bench that people seemed to be avoiding because it didn't look like an officially recognized place to sit. Stealthily, I pulled the bench out and arranged it in such a way as to make it look official. By the time I had sat down and opened my notebook, two other people had joined me on the quasi-official bench.

I stopped wondering about Beto's credentials when I realized that my bench was in the full sun and that I had put on sunscreen that was only level SPF15 before leaving the safety of the Vermont hills.

My already-cooking skin brought climate change to mind, and I remembered that, of all the “45 seconds or less” responses to the climate-change question in the June debates, O'Rourke's was the only one that had impressed me. He showed an understanding of climate science that surpassed my own, which is admittedly a low bar, but I didn't hear anyone else talk about working with farmers to pull more carbon out of the air.

I mean, “It's an emergency” doesn't really constitute an understanding of climate science, nor does “We have to reduce carbon emissions” constitute a plan for dealing with climate change.

The woman next to me was a veteran - as in, she was a veteran of New Hampshire presidential primary town hall events. She deduced from the way the furniture was situated that Beto would be standing about 10 feet in front of us, with just one guy between us and the candidate. She already had her question locked and loaded.

So did I. By this time, I had gotten used to not being a New Hampshire resident, and by golly, when the time came, I was going to raise my hand.

* * *

A lot of time passed. Beto talked about his morning jog, the giant mosquitos that we have here, and a bunch of policy stuff that I had heard before. People asked questions that they could have found the answers to on the campaign website, but I didn't blame them for wanting to hear the responses spoken by the candidate himself: a real human, breathing the same air as they and sweating with them under the same sun.

Then Beto looked toward those of us on the quasi-official bench, ready to take the next question.

I was competing with the woman next to me and the guy in front of us and who knows who else behind us, so the odds were not in my favor for being picked, but I had hope.

And that was when I learned that it pays to have red hair.

He spotted the hair. He made eye contact. He picked me.

I asked, “Do you have a plan for combatting information manipulation, both as a candidate and globally as president?”

He said, “Yes, I do,” and repeated the question for the audience as I processed my surprise.

For the campaign, his strategy was to be as transparent as possible, mentioning that they live stream almost everything they do.

As president, he said, he would make sure that foreign powers engaging in information manipulation would face serious consequences, and he would take measures to prevent social media companies from continuing to treat people as products.

Then he cited something from the day's news about facial-recognition technology being the new frontier in online privacy invasion, and I was taken aback, because I didn't know what news item he was talking about, and tracking that stuff was supposed to be my obsession - I mean, my hobby.

The next day, Beto sent out a statement about an ancestor of his having owned slaves and used that as a launching point to explain his policy position on racial justice. Transparent. Clever.

The following day, the FaceApp scandal made its way into my newsfeed. I sighed.

But not as heavily as I would have a week earlier.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates