Press: Online manipulation on a global scale
19 January 2021
The project’s latest report, “Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation,” was covered by McClatchy, the Washington Post, and other outlets.
Russia’s social media blitz to influence the 2016 U.S. election was part of a global “phenomenon” in which a broad spectrum of governments and political parties used Internet platforms to spread junk news and disinformation in at least 48 countries last year, an Oxford University study has found.
Including U.S. government programs aimed at countering extremists such as Islamic fundamentalists, about $500 million has been spent worldwide on research, development or implementation of social media “psychological operations” since 2010, the authors estimated.
“The manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms has emerged as a critical threat to public life,” the researchers wrote. They warned that, at a time when news consumption is increasingly occurring over the Internet, this trend threatens “to undermine trust in the media, public institutions and science.”
In an earlier analysis covering 2016, the researchers found governments and political parties had deployed social media to manipulate the public in 28 countries.
“Disinformation during elections is the new normal,” co-author Philip Howard told McClatchy. “In democracies around the world, more and more political parties are using social media to spread junk information and propaganda to voters.
“The largest, most complex disinformation campaigns are managed from Russia and directed at democracies. But increasingly, I’m also worried about copycat organizations springing up in other authoritarian regimes.”
In about a fifth of the countries evaluated, the researchers reported disinformation campaigns are occurring on chat applications, even encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram. Howard said young people in poorer nations “develop their political identities” on those sites, “so that’s where the disinformation campaigns will go.”
Washington Post: On WhatsApp, fake news is fast — and can be fatal
Messaging platforms have hosted disinformation campaigns in at least 10 countries this year, according to a report by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. WhatsApp was the main platform for disinformation in seven of those nations, including Brazil, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Mexico. Other messaging apps that have hosted disinformation include Telegram in Iran, WeChat in China and Line in Thailand.
“In the U.S., the disinformation debate is about the Facebook news feed, but globally, it’s all about closed messaging apps,” said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit news literacy and fact-checking organization affiliated with Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The closed nature of messaging services complicates the already difficult task of fighting rumors and stamping out lies. Unlike the largely open forums of Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp hosts private chats among groups of friends. It is encrypted, or mathematically scrambled, so that no one — not even the service’s employees — can read the content of messages that were not intended for them.
“In many countries, messaging services are the main platform to get online,” said Samantha Bradshaw, co-author of the report from the Computational Propaganda Project. “The closed platforms can be more dangerous because the information is spreading in these intimate groups of friends and family — people we tend to trust.”
A new report from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University, has found that despite efforts to combat computational propaganda, the problem is growing at a large scale.
“The number of countries where formally organised social media manipulation occurs has greatly increased, from 28 to 48 countries globally,” says Samantha Bradshaw, co-author of the report. “The majority of growth comes from political parties who spread disinformation and junk news around election periods. There are more political parties learning from the strategies deployed during Brexit and the US 2016 Presidential election: more campaigns are using bots, junk news, and disinformation to polarise and manipulate voters.”
This is despite efforts by governments in many democracies introducing new legislation designed to combat fake news on the internet. “The problem with this is that these ‘task forces’ to combat fake news are being used as a new tool to legitimise censorship in authoritarian regimes,” says Professor Phil Howard, co-author and lead researcher on the OII’s Computational Propaganda project. “At best, these types of task forces are creating counter-narratives and building tools for citizen awareness and fact-checking.”
The Oxford Internet Institute published a report last week that found evidence of formally organised social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, up from 28 last year.
It said that in each of the countries there was at least one political party or government agency using social media to manipulate public opinion domestically, increasingly by spreading disinformation during elections, or government agencies developing their own computational propaganda campaigns in response to perceived threats from abroad.
EU regulators attending a seminar in Oxford this year were told that the current efforts to regulate social media manipulation “remain fragmentary, heavy-handed, and ill-equipped”.
Germany has been criticised for a law that requires large social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to swiftly remove “illegal content”, ranging from insults to a public office to threats of violence, or face multimillion-euro fines.
Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at Oxford university’s computational propaganda project, who authored a working document for the event, said there was a danger that well-meaning policies in Europe could be seized upon by authoritarian states to justify repression of speech.
India needs to introduce guidelines for the use of social media during the 2019 general elections, according to a study by the University of Oxford that explored formally organised social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries.
At a time when readers are increasingly consuming news on digital media, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and ‘blackbox’ algorithms are being leveraged to challenge truth and trust, the study by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) said.
The study says that since 2010, many political parties and governments have spent over half a billion dollars on the research, development, and implementation of psychological operations and public opinion manipulation over the social media.
Philip Howard, OII director and co-author of the study titled ‘Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation’, said India is one of the 48 countries where there is evidence of organised social media manipulation.
“Disinformation campaigns flow over every major social media platform in India,” he said.
“With a big general election coming early in the new year, it is important that election officials come up with some moderate guidelines for social media use during campaigns…” he added.
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