The scourge of social media

Pro­pa­ganda has en­tered the dig­i­tal age, with a num­ber of sin­is­ter play­ers around the world prop­a­gat­ing false in­for­ma­tion to sway the public’s views on var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal is­sues.

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the Com­pu­ta­tional Pro­pa­ganda Re­search Project. What a name! I came across the project, which is based at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford’s In­ter­net In­sti­tute, through a work­ing pa­per it re­cently published ti­tled Com­pu­ta­tional Pro­pa­ganda. The re­searchers de­fine com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda as the use of al­go­rithms, au­to­ma­tion and hu­man cu­ra­tion to pur­pose­fully dis­trib­ute mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion over social media net­works. South Africa’s lo­cal ver­sion would be the al­le­ga­tions made against the Gupta fam­ily and UK public re­la­tions firm Bell Pot­tinger, re­gard­ing el­e­ments that have been dubbed “paid Twit­ter”.

“One per­son, or a small group of peo­ple, can use an army of po­lit­i­cal bots on Twit­ter to give the il­lu­sion of large scale con­sen­sus,” the re­port reads. “Regimes use po­lit­i­cal bots, built to look and act like real cit­i­zens, in ef­forts to si­lence op­po­nents and to push of­fi­cial state mes­sag­ing.

“Po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, and their sup­port­ers, de­ploy po­lit­i­cal bots – and com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda more broadly – dur­ing elec­tions in at­tempts to sway the vote or de­fame crit­ics,” it states.

We al­ready saw ex­am­ples of this in the 2016 elec­tion in the US and the 2017 elec­tion in France. The re­port also points to ex­am­ples in the Brexit vote and the rise of the right-wing pop­ulist po­lit­i­cal party UKIP in the UK.

The re­port makes for some pretty crazy read­ing and what re­ally ter­ri­fied me is not the fact that forms of pro­pa­ganda like this ex­ist, but the scale on which com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda is be­ing used around the world.

The study looked at the use of social media in ma­nip­u­lat­ing public opin­ion across nine coun­tries – Brazil, Canada, China, Ger­many, Poland, Tai­wan, Rus­sia, Ukraine and the US – and is the first of its kind. The re­port analy­ses qual­i­ta­tive, quan­ti­ta­tive, and com­pu­ta­tional ev­i­dence col­lected be­tween 2015 and 2017.

In­ter­est­ingly, the re­searchers point out that “po­lit­i­cal ac­tors” were adapt­ing their cam­paigns in re­sponse to the re­search team’s work. “This sug­gests that the cam­paign­ers behind fake ac­counts and the peo­ple do­ing their ‘pa­tri­otic pro­gram­ming’ are aware of the neg­a­tive cov­er­age that this gets in the news media,” it states.

The re­searchers made a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cov­er­ies. The re­port states that some social media plat­forms, in particular po­lit­i­cal con­texts, are ei­ther “fully con­trolled” by or “dom­i­nated” by gov­ern­ments and or­gan­ised dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, case stud­ies show that au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments di­rect com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda at their own pop­u­la­tion and at pop­u­la­tions in other coun­tries. Chi­nese cam­paigns tar­get­ing po­lit­i­cal ac­tors in Tai­wan, and Rus­sian cam­paigns tar­get­ing po­lit­i­cal ac­tors in Poland and Ukraine are cited as ex­am­ples of the lat­ter.

The re­port states that the “most powerful” forms of com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda in­volve both al­go­rith­mic and hu­man cu­ra­tion, “bots and trolls work­ing to­gether”. It sin­gles out Chi­ne­seled social media pro­pa­ganda in Tai­wan as an ex­am­ple of this.

The re­searchers high­light social media posts about Ukraine as “per­haps the most glob­ally ad­vanced case of com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda”.

“Nu­mer­ous on­line dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns have been waged against Ukrainian cit­i­zens on VKon­takte, Face­book and Twit­ter,” reads the re­port. “The in­dus­try that drives these ef­forts at ma­nip­u­la­tion has been ac­tive in this particular coun­try since the early 2000s.”

The re­port states that as much as 45% of Twit­ter ac­tiv­ity in Rus­sia is man­aged by highly au­to­mated ac­counts and that Pol­ish po­lit­i­cal de­bate on Twit­ter is pro­duced by a hand­ful of right wing and na­tion­al­ist ac­counts.

In Brazil it points to the role that com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda played dur­ing three re­cent po­lit­i­cal events: the 2014 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, the im­peach­ment of for­mer pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff and the 2016 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Rio de Janeiro.

The re­searchers say that nu­mer­ous in­ter­views with politi­cians, cam­paign­ers, and elec­tions of­fi­cials re­in­forced the fact that social media com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda is be­ing used to ma­nip­u­late on­line dis­cus­sion.

Again we didn’t re­ally need the politi­cians and cam­paign­ers, or this re­port, to con­firm what we knew was al­ready hap­pen­ing. But the scale on which this strat­egy is be­ing em­ployed is ter­ri­fy­ing.

Com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda is not just a threat to an in­formed public; it has be­come a po­lit­i­cal weapon. The re­port goes as far as stat­ing that com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda is now one of the “most powerful tools against democ­racy”.

“Social media firms may not be creating this nasty con­tent, but they are the plat­form for it,” reads the re­port. “They need to sig­nif­i­cantly re­design them­selves if democ­racy is going to sur­vive social media.” Democ­racy sur­viv­ing social media, now there’s a thought. When Mark Zucker­berg launched Face­book from his Har­vard Uni­ver­sity dorm room or the team at Twit­ter decided that 140 char­ac­ters was a limit to self-ex­pres­sion that peo­ple could live with, nei­ther would have guessed that their plat­forms would be abused in this way.

It feels like just the other day that the world was cheer­ing and glee­ful that social media had fu­elled democ­racy by play­ing a piv­otal role in the Arab Spring.

Com­pu­ta­tional pro­pa­ganda might have played a sig­nif­i­cant role dur­ing the im­peach­ment of for­mer pres­i­dent of Brazil, Dilma Rouss­eff.

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