Thirty coun­tries use 'armies of opin­ion shapers' to ma­nip­u­late democ­racy – re­port

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Alex Hern

The gov­ern­ments of 30 coun­tries around the globe are us­ing armies of so called opin­ion shapers to med­dle in elec­tions, ad­vance anti-demo­cratic agen­das and re­press their cit­i­zens, a new re­port shows.

De­spite the at­ten­tion paid to Rus­sian at­tempts to in­flu­ence for­eign elec­tions, most of the of­fend­ing coun­tries use the in­ter­net to ma­nip­u­late opin­ion do­mes­ti­cally, says US NGO Free­dom House.

“Ma­nip­u­la­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion tac­tics played an im­por­tant role in elec­tions in at least 17 other coun­tries over the past year, dam­ag­ing cit­i­zens’ abil­ity to choose their lead­ers based on fac­tual news and au­then­tic de­bate,” the US gov­ern­ment-funded char­ity said. “Al­though some gov­ern­ments sought to sup­port their in­ter­ests and ex­pand their in­flu­ence abroad, as with Rus­sia’s dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns in the United States and Europe, in most cases they used these meth­ods inside their own bor­ders to main­tain their hold on power.”

Even in those coun­tries that didn’t have elec­tions in the last year, so­cial me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion was still fre­quent. Of the 65 coun­tries sur­veyed, 30, in­clud­ing Venezuela, the Philip­pines and Turkey, were found to be us­ing “armies of opin­ion shapers” to “spread gov­ern­ment views, drive par­tic­u­lar agen­das, and counter gov­ern­ment crit­ics on so­cial me­dia”, ac­cord­ing to Free­dom House’s new Free­dom on the Net re­port.

That num­ber has risen ev­ery year since the first re­port in 2009. In 2016, just 23 coun­tries were found to be us­ing the same sort of pro­gov­ern­ment “as­tro­turf­ing” (a fake grass­roots move­ment). Re­cently “the prac­tice has be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more wide­spread and tech­ni­cally so­phis­ti­cated, with bots, pro­pa­ganda pro­duc­ers, and fake news out­lets ex­ploit­ing so­cial me­dia and search al­go­rithms to en­sure high vis­i­bil­ity and seam­less in­te­gra­tion with trusted con­tent,” the re­port says.

“The ef­fects of these rapidly spread­ing tech­niques on democ­racy and civic ac­tivism are po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing … By bol­ster­ing the false per­cep­tion that most cit­i­zens stand with them, au­thor­i­ties are able to jus­tify crack­downs on the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and ad­vance anti-demo­cratic changes to laws and in­sti­tu­tions with­out a proper de­bate.”

The re­port de­scribes the var­ied forms this ma­nip­u­la­tion takes. In the Philip­pines, it is man­i­fested as a “key­board army” paid $10 a day to op­er­ate fake so­cial me­dia ac­counts, which sup­ported Ro­drigo Duterte in the run-up to his elec­tion last year, and backed his crack­down on the drug trade this year. Turkey’s rul­ing party en­listed 6,000 peo­ple to ma­nip­u­late dis­cus­sions, drive agen­das and counter op­po­nents. The gov­ern­ment of Su­dan’s ap­proach is more di­rect: a unit within the coun­try’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vice cre­ated fake ac­counts to fab­ri­cate sup­port for gov­ern­ment poli­cies and de­nounce crit­i­cal jour­nal­ists.

“Gov­ern­ments are now us­ing so­cial me­dia to sup­press dis­sent and ad­vance an anti-demo­cratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, di­rec­tor of the Free­dom on the Net project. “Not only is this ma­nip­u­la­tion dif­fi­cult to de­tect, it is more dif­fi­cult to com­bat than other types of cen­sor­ship, such as web­site block­ing, be­cause it’s dis­persed and be­cause of the sheer num­ber of peo­ple and bots de­ployed to do it.”

“The fabri­ca­tion of grass­roots sup­port for gov­ern­ment poli­cies on so­cial me­dia cre­ates a closed loop in which the regime es­sen­tially en­dorses it­self, leav­ing in­de­pen­dent groups and or­di­nary cit­i­zens on the out­side,” Kelly said.

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Pho­to­graph: Rafe Swan/Getty Im­ages/Cul­tura RF

‘Fake news out­lets ex­ploi so­cial me­dia and search al­go­rithms to en­sure high vis­i­bil­ity and seam­less in­te­gra­tion with trusted con­tent,’ the re­port says.

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