While much of the world's attention is currently centered on efforts by Russian operatives to sow discord among the American electorate with fake social media posts and "troll farms" during the 2016 presidential election, an Oxford Internet Institute study published Friday found that use of social media by governments looking to "spread junk information and propaganda to voters" has become a global phenomenon.
"Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control."
"Social media manipulation is big business," the researchers found. "We estimate that tens of millions of dollars are being spent on social media manipulation campaigns, involving tens of thousands of professional staff."
While there is nothing new about political parties and governments using disinformation to manipulate elections at home and abroad, the Oxford researchers note that the massive, easily accessible, and lightly regulated platforms offered by Facebook and Twitter have become enormously powerful tools in the hands of political actors, who have used social media to kick their propaganda campaigns into overdrive and cast doubt on science and public institutions.
"Although closely related to some of the dirty tricks and negative campaigning we might expect in close races (and which have always played a part in political campaigning ), what makes this phenomenon unique is the deliberate use of computational propaganda to manipulate voters and shape the outcome of elections," the study notes.
In 30 of the 48 countries examined, Oxford researchers discovered "evidence of political parties using computational propaganda during elections or referenda. In emerging and Western democracies, sophisticated data analytics and political bots are being used to poison the information environment, promote skepticism and distrust, polarize voting constituencies, and undermine the integrity of democratic processes."
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Despite recent efforts by Facebook, Twitter, and governments to rein in the proliferation of fake stories on social media, Oxford researchers found that the use of bots to quickly spread disinformation is growing exponentially.
"We actually found 38 countries used bots last year, compared with 17 in the year before," Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the new study, told McClatchy.
"Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike," the study concludes. "We cannot wait for national courts to sort out the technicalities of infractions after running an election or referendum. Protecting our democracies now means setting the rules of fair play before voting day, not after."