January 23, 2021

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Social media political manipulation has ‘soared since 2019 to an industrial scale’

3 min read

Social media manipulation campaigns spreading propaganda and political disinformation are being conducted in 81 countries worldwide, amplifying anti-democratic rhetoric and exploiting geopolitical influence, a new report has warned.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII), which is part of the University of Oxford, identified the UK, US and Russia as among the worst perpetrators, having found evidence of social media manipulation from government agencies, politicians and political parties, private contractors, civil society organisations, ordinary people and influencers in the countries.

Malaysia, Libya, Kuwait, Israel, Poland and the Philippines were similarly found to host significant and widespread manipulation campaigns, while evidence pointed to manipulation originating from China in all areas except politicians and their parties.

The OII’s analysis suggests that organised social media manipulation campaigns rose dramatically from originating in 70 countries in 2019 to 81 in 2020, which it likened to “soaring” to an industrial scale.

Cyber troop armies deployed to spread lies

Governments and political parties are spending millions on private sector ‘cyber troops’, including influencers, volunteers, youth groups and civil society organisations, to spread disinformation and disrupt elections, democracy and human rights.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence operations on social media platforms on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence operations on social media platforms on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., 5 September 2018 (Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Hacking, stealing or impersonating accounts made up a relatively small proportion of the cyber troops’ propaganda spreading methods, with only 14 instances identified by the report.

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Instead, it found 63 instances of private firms working with cyber troops to disseminate disinformation, creating false accounts, identifying audiences for micro-targeting, or using bots or human volunteers to deliberately amplify certain political messages to ensure they start trending on platforms such as Twitter in exchange for cash.

‘Industrial scale’ propaganda

Close to $60m (£44m) is known to have been spent on hiring firms for computational propaganda since 2011, according to the researchers, although the true amount could be significantly higher.

Facebook and Twitter removed more than 317,000 accounts and pages from cyber troop actors between January 2019 and December 2020, despite cyber troops managing to spend almost $10m on political advertising on Facebook alone.

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Professor Philip Howard, Director of the OII, said the report illustrated how misinformation has become more professionalised and is now produced on an industrial scale. 

“Now more than ever, the public needs to be able to rely on trustworthy information about government policy and activity,” he said.

“Social media companies need to raise their game by increasing their efforts to flag misinformation and close fake accounts without the need for government intervention, so the public has access to high-quality information.”

The 81 countries the OII found cyber troop activity in:

Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Myanmar, Netherlands, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman,
Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen and Zimbabwe

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