Gray Matters

Inside the Minds of Trolls

Camille Francois studies trolls for a living. She’s the chief innovation officer at Graphika — a social media analytics firm hired by major companies to identify and fight online disinformation. Her team was a big part of uncovering the extent of Russian influence during the 2016 election.

She paints a more nuanced picture of Internet trolls. Sometimes, she says, people start out with good intentions and end up in over their head…

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

I woke up and I was just sending rape threats to women journalists using fake accounts and wondered what happened?

Camille Francois: [I was] talking to people who went into doing digital campaigning…to support their candidates. And slowly [they] saw the campaign apparatus evolve into like a state propaganda machine after their candidate came into power. And so there are a few stories like this of people who said, “Initially I joined because I wanted to do campaign messaging for my candidate to win. And then I woke up and I was just sending rape threats to women journalists using fake accounts and wondered what happened? What am I doing there?”

Laurie Segall: Someone said that to you?

Camille Francois: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Wow. What did they say?

Camille Francois: Just that, you know? That it slipped. That they went in for one thing and that with the success of the candidate and the evolution of the machinery, they ended up just really doing something else.

Laurie Segall: Can you give any details about the candidate that this person…

Camille Francois: That was a story that happened in India. But, again, I’ve heard that a few times and I think that the story of doing something for political reasons that ends up sort of putting you in the middle of the machinery that’s no longer what you had joined is one that’s more common than what we think.

Laurie Segall: …Did you ever find yourself really liking these people that you talk to?

Camille Francois: Yeah. You know, …you have empathy for someone who works for a candidate and suddenly says, like, “What am I doing here?”