Social media, to some extent, provides users with a liberating, democratic platform. Individuals are free, within reason, to publish and share whatever they want. However, this is threatened by the presence of sinister social media manipulation.
What if the way we think is being subtly yet detrimentally shaped by higher forces online? The Computational Propaganda Research Project (COMPROP) team, dedicated to investigating the impact of automated information, have the answers.
They have spent the last three years observing social media manipulation. Their research is published in The Global Disinformation Order 2019, part of Oxford University's Oxford Internet Institute.
Explaining the motivation behind their project, they say 'computational propaganda—through bots, botnets, and algorithms—has become one of the most concerning impacts of technological innovation'.
This is a concern reinforced by their 5 key findings:
1. Their research uncovered evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns, which have taken place in 70 countries. In 2017, online manipulation was present in 28 countries. By 2018, the number had risen to 48 countries.
They found that there is at least one political party or government agency using social media to shape public attitudes in each of those countries.
2. Computational propaganda is being used as a tool of information control in 26 countries. It is being used to suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.
3. If having control in your own country is not enough, a number of sophisticated state actors were found using computational propaganda for foreign influence operations. Their manipulation can then reach global audiences.
Popular platforms Twitter and Facebook attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries. These included China, Iran and Russia.
4. Continuing concerns for democracy, China has become an infamous figure in the global disinformation order. Recently, this is in the form of aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Before this though, most evidence of Chinese computational propaganda occurred on domestic platforms. They included sites such as Weibo, WeChat, and QQ.
The 2019 protests in Hong Kong go some way to illustrate the unrest caused by authoritarian regimes, only exacerbated by their social media manipulation.
5. Evidence of formally organised computational propaganda campaigns on Facebook were found in 56 countries. Facebook, therefore, remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation.
The report sheds light on the attack social media is under by powerful sources, succeeding in spreading political propaganda. Thus, digital democracy through the public sphere is undermined, laying the foundations for an uncertain future.
So, how can we, the citizens, win this war? The COMPROP team pledge to 'put the best methods in social and computer science to work on the size of the problem and the possible solutions'. Hence, hope is not lost.