Facebook and Twitter are being used to manipulate public opinion – report
Nine-country study finds widespread use of social media for promoting lies, misinformation and propaganda by governments and individuals
By Alex Hern
Jun 19 2017
Propaganda on social media is being used to manipulate public opinion around the world, a new set of studies from the University of Oxford has revealed.
From Russia, where around 45% of highly active Twitter accounts are bots, to Taiwan, where a campaign against President Tsai Ing-wen involved thousands of heavily co-ordinated – but not fully automated – accounts sharing Chinese mainland propaganda, the studies show that social media is an international battleground for dirty politics.
The reports, part of the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, cover nine nations also including Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and the the United States. They found “the lies, the junk, the misinformation” of traditional propaganda is widespread online and “supported by Facebook or Twitter’s algorithms” according to Philip Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford.
At their simpler end, techniques used include automated accounts to like, share and post on the social networks. Such accounts can serve to game algorithms to push content on to curated social feeds. They can drown out real, reasoned debate between humans in favour of a social network populated by argument and soundbites and they can simply make online measures of support, such as the number of likes, look larger – crucial in creating the illusion of popularity.
The researchers found that in the US this took the form of what Samuel Woolley, the project’s director of research, calls “manufacturing consensus” – creating the illusion of popularity so that a political candidate can have viability where they might not have had it before.
The US report says: “The illusion of online support for a candidate can spur actual support through a bandwagon effect. Trump made Twitter centre stage in this election, and voters paid attention.”
While the report finds some evidence of institutional support for the use of bots, even if only in an “experimental” fashion by party campaign managers, Woolley emphasises that it’s just as powerful coming from individuals. “Bots massively multiply the ability of one person to attempt to manipulate people,” he says. “Picture your annoying friend on Facebook, who’s always picking political fights. If they had an army of 5,000 bots, that would be a lot worse, right?”
Russian propaganda on social media is well known in the west for its external-facing arm, including allegations of state involvement in the US and French presidential elections. But the nation’s social media is also heavily infiltrated with digital propaganda domestically according to the report on that country.
It shows that Russia first developed its digital propaganda expertise for dealing with internal threats to stability and drowning out dissent to Putin’s regime while providing the same illusion of overwhelming consensus that was used in the US election years later. “Political competition in Putin’s Russia created the demand for online propaganda tools,” the report’s author, Sergey Sanovich, writes, “and … market competition was allowed to to efficiently meet this demand and create tools that were later deployed in foreign operations”.