Study: Governments use social media to spread misinformation

Propaganda on social media is being used to manipulate public opinion around the world, a new set of studies from the University of Oxford has revealed.

From Russia, where around 45% of highly active Twitter accounts are bots, to Taiwan, where a campaign against President Tsai Ing-wen involved thousands of heavily co-ordinated – but not fully automated – accounts sharing Chinese mainland propaganda, the studies show that social media is an international battleground for dirty politics.

The reports, part of the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, cover nine nations also including Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and the the United States. They found “the lies, the junk, the misinformation” of traditional propaganda is widespread online and “supported by Facebook or Twitter’s algorithms” according to Philip Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford.

At their simpler end, techniques used include automated accounts to like, share and post on the social networks. Such accounts can serve to game algorithms to push content on to curated social feeds. They can drown out real, reasoned debate between humans in favour of a social network populated by argument and soundbites and they can simply make online measures of support, such as the number of likes, look larger – crucial in creating the illusion of popularity.

The researchers found that in the US this took the form of what Samuel Woolley, the project’s director of research, calls “manufacturing consensus” – creating the illusion of popularity so that a political candidate can have viability where they might not have had it before.

The US report says: “The illusion of online support for a candidate can spur actual support through a bandwagon effect. Trump made Twitter centre stage in this election, and voters paid attention.”

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