WhatsApp and Twitter Manipulated for Political Campaigns

Evidence of social media manipulation for political gain is increasing. In Brazil, in response to an investigation into the spread of misinformation during the last presidential campaign, WhatsApp revealed it banned 400,000+ accounts between August 15 and October 28, 2018, which had “breached its terms of service,” with mass mailings. In the U.K., during a debate between the prime minister and head of the opposition party, the former’s party rebranded its Twitter account with the aim of misleading the public.

ZDNet reports WhatsApp further explained that, “because [it] is an encrypted platform, our decisions against automated and bulk messaging activities are based on account behavior rather than messaging content” and that it has “significantly enhanced” the app to “limit viral message spread, with message forwarding capped to five conversations at a time.” The app also labels non-personal messages as “forwarded” or “highly forwarded.”

Current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “has been linked to a defamatory scheme whereby businesses were accused to have contracted a multimillion-dollar blast messaging service to attack his opponent.” Such an effort would be illegal since “local electoral legislation only allows use of contact lists drawn up voluntarily by the campaigns themselves … [and] business campaign funding is also prohibited.” Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo Bolsonaro, a congressman, criticized WhatsApp’s decision.

VentureBeat reports on how “political entities … weaponiz[ed] social networks to mislead the public” during a pre-election live TV debate between U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. During that debate, “the Twitter account belonging to the Conservative Party’s press office changed its display name from ‘CCHQ Press’ to ‘factcheckUK,’ replete with a new logo and header image” and then tweeted “statements of fact” throughout the debate.

Since “most people in the U.K. are not familiar with the ‘CCHQPress’ or ‘CCHQ’ brand,” said critics, “the casual observer may assume it originates from an official fact-checking service.” “CCHQ’s maneuver may not have had a significant impact on its own, but the sheer brazenness of the stunt stands out,” says VB. “And it demonstrates that political parties are increasingly empowered to do or say what they wish online — with no consequences.”

Although Twitter has “policies in place to deal with this kind of activity,” the CCHQ Twitter account is “still online, replete with its blue badge of honor.” VB notes the similarity to the “false advertisements paid for by Donald Trump to promote unfounded claims about rival Joe Biden” that CNN refused to run but that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did.

“The phenomenon of political entities presenting falsehoods or other misleading information on social media is hardly new,” says VB, “but it’s clear that many are now pushing the boundaries to their very limits. Perhaps more importantly here, they’re no longer even trying to pretend otherwise.”