Social media manipulation a growing threat to democracies: Oxford study

Governments, public relations firms and political parties are producing misinformation on an industrial scale, the report says.
(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 05, 2020 the logo of US social network Facebook and mobile messaging service WhatsApp are seen on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. - US federal and state antitrust enforcers filed suit against Facebook on December 9, 2020 claiming the social media giant abused its dominant position with its acquisitions of messaging services Instagram and WhatsApp. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP) (AFP file)
(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 05, 2020 the logo of US social network Facebook and mobile messaging service WhatsApp are seen on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. - US federal and state antitrust enforcers filed suit against Facebook on December 9, 2020 claiming the social media giant abused its dominant position with its acquisitions of messaging services Instagram and WhatsApp. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP) (AFP file)
Published on Jan 13, 2021 07:28 PM IST
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ByPrasun Sonwalkar , edited by Vinod Janardhanan

Social media manipulation of public opinion is a growing threat to democracies around the world, according to the 2020 media manipulation survey from a University of Oxford institute, which found evidence in each of the 81 countries surveyed, including India.

The number of countries with evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns was up 15% in one year, from 70 countries in 2019, the report by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) released on Wednesday said.

Governments, public relations firms and political parties are producing misinformation on an industrial scale, the report says, adding that disinformation has become a common strategy, with more than 93% of the countries (76 out of 81) seeing disinformation deployed as part of political communication.

Philip Howard, director of the institute and the report’s co-author said: “Our report shows 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”.

“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,” he added.

The OII team warns the level of social media manipulation has soared, with governments and political parties spending millions on private sector ‘cyber troops’, who drown out other voices on social media. Citizen influencers are used to spread manipulated messages; these include volunteers, youth groups and civil society organisations, who support their ideologies, it adds.

Key findings include: Private ‘strategic communications’ firms are playing an increasing role in spreading computational propaganda, with researchers identifying state actors working with such firms in 48 countries; almost $60 million has been spent on firms who use bots and other amplification strategies to create the impression of trending political messaging.

The report adds that social media has become a major battleground, with firms such as Facebook and Twitter taking steps to combat ‘cyber troops’, with some $10 million spent on social media political advertisements. The platforms removed more than 317,000 accounts and pages from ‘cyber troops’ actors between January 2019 and November 2020.

The 2020 report draws upon a four-step methodology to identify evidence of globally organised manipulation campaigns, including content analysis of news articles on cyber troop activity, secondary literature review of public archives and scientific reports, generating country-specific case studies and expert consultations.

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Saturday, January 22, 2022