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Governments using Twitter and Facebook to shape public opinion

Nine-country study finds governments manipulating public opinion by spreading misinformation and propaganda on social media, harming democracies.

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LONDON, UK – Governments globally are manipulating public opinion by using propaganda on social media, according to a new set of studies released by the University of Oxford.

According to the studies – which involved researchers and experts across nine countries, including China, the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Poland, and Taiwan – social media is quickly becoming key to numerous political battlefields. In fact, many social media algorithms, like Twitter or Facebook’s, supported the spread of “the lies, the junk, the misinformation” of traditional propaganda online, Oxford’s Professor of Internet Studies Philip Howard told The Guardian last Tuesday.

The studies, part of Oxford Internet Institute’s Computation Propaganda Research Project, found that governments used both manual and automated accounts, or “political bots”, to drown out rational debates, spread misinformation, attack oppositions, and even “manufacture consensus” – creating illusions of popularity to make presidential candidates seem more viable than they are. It said: “This theoretically has the effect of galvanising political support where this might not previously have happened.”

In the US, for instance, political bots sent out nearly 2 million tweets supporting President Trump in a month. “The illusion of online support for a candidate can spur actual support through a bandwagon effect,” said the US study. “(President) Trump made Twitter centre stage in this election, and voters paid attention.”

Taiwanese propaganda on social media, on the other hand, combined manual and automated attacks on President Tsai Ing-wen. For example, they found more than a thousand tweets attacking her from “suspicious accounts” – heavily coordinated accounts that seemed like typical political bots but were not obviously automated.

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Meanwhile in China, the study focused on the government’s social media use to promote nationalism.

By using “highly controlled” and complex censorship and filtering systems, the state could monitor public opinion and quickly respond to negative sentiments, solidifying their control.

Fake accounts manipulating information and circulating certain information, both political and commercial, are also rampant on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

Chinese government employees post nearly half a billion positive propaganda annually as part of their regular jobs, especially during sensitive times, said the study.

“Social media firms may not be creating this nasty content, but they are the platform for it. They need to significantly redesign themselves if democracy is going to survive social media. “

– Oxford’s Professor of Internet Studies Philip Howard

From manipulating online discussion to attacking oppositions, these political bots – whether manual or fully automated – play an influential role in the modern political landscape. Yet the report shows a clear disinterest from social media firms in the way their platform is being used.

For instance, Twitter, although successful in taking down commercial bots, is still less willing or able fight off bots involved in political activity.

“For the most part, they leave it to the user community to police themselves, and flag accounts,” said Professor Howard.

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