The Global Disinformation Order, a new study by the Oxford Internet Institute, confirms our worst fears about governments’ use of social media to influence their people.
“Evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns have taken place in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017,” the study reads. “In each country, there is at least one political party or government agency using social media to shape public attitudes domestically.”
Social media has been effectively co-opted by authoritarian regimes in 26 countries, it says. “Cyber troops,” in the form of bots or groups of trolls, are one of an increasing number of tools used to promote specific narratives, suppress human rights, and publicly smear political opponents.
And these operations aren’t just limited to domestic audiences. The report found that seven countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Venezuela—have actively tried to use computational elements of social media algorithms (virality, hashtags, and incessant squawking) to promote disinformation on a global scale as well.
And Facebook dominates in this sphere. “Despite there being more social networking platforms than ever, Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation,” the report reads.
The most common methods of influencing opinion lie in these broad categories:
- Creation of disinformation or manipulated media
- Mass reporting of content or accounts
- Data-driven strategies
- Trolling, doxing, or harassment
- Amplifying content and media online
Facebook users are vulnerable targets
I’m not proud of the fact that I can’t get myself to stop using Facebook and other social platforms. But the justification I give myself is that I almost exclusively follow trusted, legitimate publications, including lots of regional and niche ones, and I rely on social media to serve as a content engine of sorts.
While I’m experienced enough to be able to understand the difference between a credible site and bot accounts enthusiastically pumping out fake news, lots of users new to the internet are not.
In Nigeria, Indonesia, and India, for instance, many netizens think Facebook is the internet. This suggests that they rely heavily, if not exclusively, on Facebook as a source of news, communication with friends and family, games, and other forms of content consumption.
It’s no wonder then that people trust whatever’s shared on social media. Given how Facebook, historically, has done little to nothing to prevent disinformation means we live in times where the truth can be easily manipulated.
What are social media companies doing about fake news?
To be sure, social media companies have taken some action to combat troll armies. In April, it published a statement detailing how it removed “coordinated inauthentic behavior and spam from India and Pakistan.”
In the past few months, Twitter has removed thousands of accounts from Egypt, the U.A.E., China, Spain, and Ecuador for amplifying messaging from governments or political parties.
Broad measures Facebook has announced include lessening News Feed exposure of posts by groups that repeatedly provide misinformation and posts from low-quality publications. It has also beefed up its fact-checking program and introduced indicators in Messenger to help users assess the reliability of the information they receive.
And as Buzzfeed News wrote in 2017, WhatsApp is “the primary vector for the spread of misinformation” in India. The messaging app’s role in the fake news crisis has been extensively scrutinized and this year the company announced it was limiting forwarding to five times per message.
Be very afraid
Those of us sitting in the West may not think much of the Oxford Internet Institute study. Propaganda has existed for centuries after all, and there will always be rumors and misinformation flying around. While in the past this may have been the work of court whisperers, some might argue that it’s just the tools that have changed in modern times.
But that’s the equivalent of burying your head in the sand. Propaganda campaigns organized solely on social media have contributed to genocide. Digital activists have been targeted by troll armies, abducted, and tortured.
The internet can’t be hijacked by the vested interests of a few. Given the present circumstances, its future as a means for open communication and knowledge sharing is under serious threat. Unless we do something to take back control, it may not serve humanity the way its original founders had envisioned.