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Research: State-Sponsored Social Media Manipulation

Research. Cybertroops are government, military or political party teams committed to manipulating public opinion over social media. Cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon. Many different countries employ significant numbers of people and resources to manage and manipulate public opinion online, sometimes targeting domestic audiences and sometimes targeting foreign publics.
These are the findings in a paper at from Oxford University’s Internet Institute. The institute is running a xx-year project,  The Computational Propaganda Research Propject (COMPROP), investigating the interaction of algorithms, automation and politics. This working paper reports on specific organizations created, often with public money, to help define and manage what is in the best interest of the public.
The paper compare such organizations across 28 countries. It catalogues their organizational forms and evaluate their capacities in terms of budgets and staffing and summarizes the findings of the first comprehensive inventory of the major organizations behind social media manipulation.
The executive summary:
  • The earliest reports of organized social media manipulation emerged in 2010, and by 2017 there are details on such organizations in 28 countries.
  • Looking across the 28 countries, every authoritarian regime has social media campaigns targeting their own populations, while only a few of them target foreign publics.
  • In contrast, almost every democracy in this sample has organized social media campaigns that target foreign publics, while political‐party‐supported campaigns target domestic voters.
  • Authoritarian regimes are not the only or even the best at organized social media manipulation. The earliest reports of government involvement in nudging public opinion involve democracies, and new innovations in political communication technologies often come from political parties and arise during high‐profile elections.
  • Over time, the primary mode for organizing cyber troops has gone from involving military units that experiment with manipulating public opinion over social media networks to strategic communication firms that take contracts from governments for social media campaigns.

Three examples of governements’ strategies:

  • Israel has a strict policy of engaging in positive interactions with individuals who hold positions that are critical the government
  • In Mexico journalists are frequently targeted and harassed over social media by government‐ sponsored
  • Saudi Arabia engages in “hashtag poisoning”, where cyber troops spam trending hashtags to disrupt criticism or other unwanted conversations through a flood of unrelated tweets

Read the full report