Governments are using social media to manipulate public sentiment – Oxford researchers

  • A recent report sheds light on how political propaganda is spread through social media
  • Governments continue to shape and manipulate public sentiments by spreading misinformation in big social media platforms like Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram
  • Memes, videos, and viral photos are often the carriers of the misinformation

A recent report released by researchers from the University of Oxford has revealed that several governments and political parties around the world are increasingly using social media to manipulate public opinion. 

In an annual report on disinformation trends, the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project said Facebook remained the most popular platform for social media manipulation due to its size and global reach.

Over the past two years, it has been observed that there has been a 150% increase in the number of countries using social media to launch manipulation campaigns, the study reported.

“The use of computational propaganda to shape public attitudes via social media has become mainstream, extending far beyond the actions of a few bad actors. In an information environment characterized by high volumes of information and limited levels of user attention and trust, the tools and techniques of computational propaganda are becoming a common – and arguably essential – part of digital campaigning and public diplomacy.”

There is strong evidence suggesting the existence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries and territories, said the report, upping the count from 28 in 2017 to 48 in 2018. 

“The use of computational propaganda to shape public attitudes via social media has become mainstream, extending far beyond the actions of a few bad actions,” said the report’s authors. 

The study focused on what it referred to as “cyber troops, “which it defined as government or political actors that are tasked with manipulating the public’s opinion in the cyber sphere. 

In particular, these include fake accounts – including bots and those used by humans – are being used by cyber troops to spread pro-government messages, propaganda, censor free speech, exacerbate smear campaigns or to drown out dissenting opinions. 

Evidence of manipulation was found in 70 countries and territories, including seven in Southeast Asia – Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Others include Australia, China, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Singapore was not among the 70 countries and territories analyzed in the study.

via Reuters

The success of viral videos, memes, and pictures full of disinformation is fueling organized social media manipulation on Instagram and Youtube, the study continues. 

Samantha Bradshaw, one of the report’s authors said that since users are more focused on visual content more, they are increasingly being targeted with false or misleading messages on the said platform. 

“On Instagram and YouTube it’s about the evolving nature of fake news – now there are fewer text-based websites sharing articles and it’s more about video with quick, consumable content,” she said. “Memes and videos are so easy to consume in an attention-short environment.”

The report highlights the challenges that social media sites such as Facebook, Google and other social media companies in combating the spread of political and financially-motivated disinformation. 

A Facebook spokesman said showing their users accurate information was a “major priority” for the company.

“We’ve developed smarter tools, greater transparency, and stronger partnerships to better identify emerging threats, stop bad actors, and reduce the spread of misinformation on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp,” the spokesman said.

In particular, Facebook and Youtube both came under intense scrutiny over their ability to monitor their content following the mass-shooting incident in New Zealand back in March. 

That incident involved a gunman who was able to live-stream the killing of 51 people on Facebook before internet users repeatedly shared and uploaded the video across multiple social media platforms.

“Computational propaganda has become a normal part of the digital public sphere,” the report said. “These techniques will also continue to evolve as new technologies … are poised to fundamentally reshape society and politics.”

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