Governments around the world are recruiting “cyber troops” to manipulate Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms to steer public opinion, spread misinformation and hurt critics, according to a new report from Oxford University.
After highlighting government efforts to use online tools to influence politics, researchers found that 29 countries use social networks to shape national opinion or foreign audiences. Tactics are deployed by totalitarian regimes, but also by democratically elected governments, the authors say.
” Social media makes propaganda campaigns much stronger and potentially more effective than in the past, ” said Samantha Bradshaw, lead author of the report and researcher at Oxford’s Computational Research Research Project. “I do not think people realize the way governments are using these tools to reach them, because it is done in a more hidden way,” he adds.
The online behavior of government-backed groups varies widely, from commenting on Facebook or Twitter to targeting individuals. Journalists in Mexico and Russia are attacked by government groups while Saudi Arabian “cyber troops” flood the network with messages about the regime through content and hashtags . In the Czech Republic, the government is more likely to issue a verification response on something they consider inaccurate.
Governments also use fake accounts to hide where the source of the material comes from. In Serbia, for example, fake accounts are used to promote the government’s agenda and bloggers in Vietnam distribute favorable information across the network.
Meanwhile, government actors in Argentina, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and other countries use automation software, known as bots , to spread messages across social networks that mimic human behavior.
” Cyber troops are an omnipresent and global phenomenon, ” said the group’s report, which is studying how digital tools are used to manipulate public opinion.
Propaganda has long been a dark art used by governments. However, digital tools are making the techniques more sophisticated, according to Bradshaw . On that issue, he noted that governments have taken note of how activists have used social networks in recent years to spread a message and build support over the Internet. That is why some governments are adopting the same method. Online tools, such as data analysis software, allow government offices to customize a message for specific groups to maximize their impact.
Bradshaw acknowledged that while Russia and authoritarian regimes are those who have traditionally manipulated social media, Western democracies have been using similar techniques. In 2015, Britain’s army created the 77th Brigade to conduct psychological operations using social networks . Bradshaw stressed that democratic governments are not aware of these actions of Western propaganda that is being developed.
” They are using the same tools and techniques as authoritarian regimes,” he lamented. “Maybe the motivations are different, but it’s hard to say because it’s not done in a transparent way ,” he added. After the US elections, Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the leak of fake news and offensive content. Facebook, which did not make any kind of assessment about it, has hired more people and has partnered with data verification organizations to try to keep the wrong information out of their users’ feeds .
Twitter spokesman Ian Plunkett referred to a June post that said the company “should not be the arbiter of truth” and that other users do a better job than they do by warning of suspicious information. The company has taken steps in this regard and, above all, to end with the use of robot users. Bradshaw commented that there is no immediate solution to strike a balance between the benefits of sharing information over the Internet and the problems involved in spreading propaganda. She said an improvement could come with tools that make it clearer when a government is involved. “There is a fine line between freedom of expression and censorship,” he says.