Oxford University: governments propagandise social media
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Oxford University: governments propagandise social media

A new study from researchers at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project suggests that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are being used to steer public opinion, spread disinformation, and undermine critics. And this behavior is not restricted to totalitarian governments: it includes modern, western, democracies. The researchers found that 29 countries were enlisting “cyber-troops” to manipulate social media and shape opinion “domestically or with foreign audiences”.

While this is a worrying finding on one level, it is also one that many people will have little trouble believing. Prominent elections have had the shadow of cyber-interference hang over them in recent years. In the U.S., it has been widely reported that Russian intelligence “hacked” the last presidential election to secure a Trump win. In the UK, many researchers reported that social media would be a decisive factor in the country’s general election. Even the Brexit referendum has been subject to similar scrutiny.

Facebook’s share price has risen by 40% so far this year

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One thing that these findings illustrate is the growing power and relevance of social media platforms. The report’s lead author, Samantha Bradshaw, wrote that: “social media makes propaganda campaigns much stronger and potentially more effective than in the past. I don’t think people realize how much governments are using these tools to reach them. It’s a lot more hidden.”

Bradshaw also said that, while Russia and similarly authoritarian regimes get a lot of public attention for their manipulation of social media, Western democracies have been using a similar set of techniques. She highlights the UK’s creation of the 77th brigade in 2015 for “psychological operations using social media” as an example.

Social media is somewhat a Pandora’s Box, though. There’s little danger of it being restricted. The remaining question is how the companies currently profiting from such wide use of their platforms choose to respond to it.

Disclosure

Dominion holds Facebook in its Global Trends Ecommerce Fund.


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