A report published by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) has found evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns in all 81 countries surveyed in 2020, a 15% increase compared to last year’s report. 

The study points to the rising influence of ‘cyber troops’. This refers to social media accounts that spread doctored images, use data-driven strategies to target specific sections of the population, troll political opponents, and mass-report opponents’ content so that it is reported as spam. These accounts can be either automated or human.

Facebook and Twitter revealed that they removed more than 317,000 accounts and pages from their platforms in a 22-month period (Jan 2019 to Nov 2020), but they are up against an industry that has become “professionalised, with private firms offering disinformation-for-hire services,” says Dr Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the OII. While social media companies were removing accounts, $10 million was spent around the world on cyber troop political advertising in the same timeframe and $60 million has been spent on private “strategic communications” firms since 2009. 

OII’s report found evidence of government agencies in 62 countries using computational propaganda for their own ends. Examples include China-backed cyber troops who continue to launch smear campaigns against Hong Kong Protestors and the Libyan National Army who have used social media to shape narratives about the ongoing civil war.

Of the 48% of countries with misinformation campaigns that drive division and polarization, the UK and the US were counted among them. In fact, the US and the UK both tested positive for interference from all five potential actors – government agencies, politicians & parties, private contractors, civil society organisations and citizens & influencers.

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During the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, fears of civil unrest caused by years of social media manipulation were harshly realised. “The day after the election, a group immediately pops up on Facebook called Stop the Steal,” says Sheera Frankel, cybersecurity reporter for the New York Times. “They’re gaining 100 new members every 10 seconds.” After Facebook and Twitter removed their pages, the group reconvened on Gab and Parler, platforms that allow individuals to say whatever they want without fear of moderation or censorship.

“Now, more than ever, the public needs to be able to rely on trustworthy information about government policy and activity,” said Professor Philip Howard, Director of the OII and co-author of the OII report. “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.”

Image Credit: Today Testing. Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0