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Governments increasingly using private companies to manipulate public opinion

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A report from Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute (OII) has found that governments and political parties are increasingly paying private companies to manipulate public opinion using social media platforms.

In total, 81 countries (up from 70 in 2019) are now using organised “cyber troops” to distribute propaganda, misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms. These troops are primarily linked to state agencies, but are also used by political parties to undermine opposition.

Of these, 79 countries used human-run accounts, 57 used bots, and 14 used hacked or stolen accounts to share and amplify political messages. Widespread techniques included disinformation and media manipulation, state-backed attacks political opponents and activists (trolling), and data-drive strategies to microtarget political adverts.

The report found evidence of 48 countries - including the UK, US, Russia and Libya - paying companies to manage propaganda campaigns. This is nearly double the number identified in the OII’s 2019 report. These companies tend to market themselves as providing “strategic communications” services. The report’s authors described this trend as the increasing professionalisation of influence campaigns or “disinformation-for-hire”.

Since 2009, private companies have been paid more than £43m to provide these services on an “industrial scale”. Since 2018, there have been more than 65 firms offering computational propaganda as a service.

“Cyber troop activity can look different in democracies compared to authoritarian regimes,” said lead author Dr Samantha Bradshaw. “Electoral authorities need to consider the broader ecosystem of disinformation and computational propaganda, including private firms and paid influencers, who are increasingly prominent actors in this space.”

The report identified the UK government as among the worst offenders for conducting influence operations on social media. The report highlighted the government microtargeting its political adverts and containing misinformation in these adverts; 90 per cent of the Conservative Party’s Facebook adverts in early December 2019 promoted claims labelled as misleading by independent fact-checking charity Full Fact.

“Our 2020 report highlights the way in which government agencies, political parties and private firms continue to use social media to spread political propaganda, polluting the digital information ecosystem and suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” said Bradshaw.

OII director Professor Philip Howard said: “Our report shows misinformation has become more professionalised and is now produced on an industrial scale. Now more than ever, the public needs to be able to rely on trustworthy information about government policy and activity.”

“Social media companies need to raise their game by increasing their efforts to flag misinformation and close fake accounts without the need for government intervention, so the public has access to high-quality information.”

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