The University of Oxford just released a disturbing report documenting increasing evidence that 29 governments around the world are exploiting Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to influence — both domestically and internationally — public opinion, distribute false news and sabotage those perceived as foes. As might be expected, autocratic rulers use these strategies, but so do governments that have been elected democratically. The tactics employed vary from country to country.
Bloomberg outlined some of the tactics countries are using: In Mexico and Russia, the governments cyber-harass journalists; in Saudi Arabia, cyber troops flood negative Twitter posts about the regime with unrelated content and hashtags to make it harder for people to find the offending post”; the Czech Republic posts fact-check responses to posts it finds inaccurate.
The Serbian government spreads the government’s “agenda” via fake accounts, and Vietnam’s bloggers “spread favorable information.” Argentina, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and others use bots (automation software) to “spread social media posts in ways that mimics human users.”
“Social media makes propaganda campaigns much stronger and potentially more effective than in the past,” said the report’s lead author Samantha Bradshaw, who is also a researcher at Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project. “I don’t think people realize how much governments are using these tools to reach them. It’s a lot more hidden.”
She states that, although propaganda has been long-used by governments, “digital tools are making the techniques more sophisticated,” and that “governments over the past several years have taken note of the way activists have used social media to spread a message and build support, and are adopting some of the same methods.”
Bradshaw also notes that, “while Russia and authoritarian regimes get most of the attention for manipulating social media, Western democracies have been using similar techniques,” pointing to a British Army campaign created “in part for psychological operations using social media.”
“They are using the same tools and techniques as the authoritarian regimes,” she said. “Maybe the motivations are different, but it’s hard to tell without the transparency.”
Although both Facebook and Twitter have taken some steps to “filter out fake news and offensive content” after the last U.S. election, Bradshaw said, “there isn’t an easy solution when balancing the benefits of sharing information across the Internet against the problems with spreading propaganda … There’s a fine line between free speech and censorship.”