Computational propaganda: another dark corner of the net

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has all the reason to be proud of his life’s crown achievement: the World Wide Web. But he is not. In a series of interviews last fall, Berners-Lee complained that the internet today isn’t what he imagined almost 30 years ago when he invented it. In a long list of specific concerns, Berners-Lee mentioned the pervasiveness of ads, privacy breaches, hate speech, and fake news.

A recent report documents the rise and rapid maturation of yet another troublesome net tool: organized social media manipulation or computational propaganda, in the words of the report’s authors, Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard of the University of Oxford.

Bradshaw and Howard argue that computational propaganda, which they define as “the use of algorithms, automation, and big data to shape public life,” is becoming a pervasive and ubiquitous part of everyday life. Its presence can be spotted in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017.

The most troubling techniques of computational propaganda include the use of “political bots” to amplify hate speech or other forms of manipulated content, the illegal collection of data and micro-targeting, and deploying of trolls to bully or harass political opponents or journalists. Seven countries – China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela – have also used computational propaganda to influence political events in foreign countries.

Even nations not known for the aggressive weaponizing of the net take advantage of some “mild” forms of computational propaganda. For example, in Germany and Sweden, political parties and/or non-government entities use social media manipulation to advance political and social causes.

Facebook remains the most popular platform for social media manipulation, with some evidence of computational propaganda campaigns on Facebook found in 56 countries. At the same time, the increased use of YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp has also been reported.

The usage of human-operated social media accounts is still the most popular way of conducting computational propaganda: 60 out of the 70 countries use them. Bot accounts come next, with 50 out of 70 countries employing bot accounts. Of special concerns is the use of stolen or hacked accounts to conduct social media manipulation campaigns. Five countries – Guatemala, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Uzbekistan – have been marked for this type of behavior.

In the United States, social media manipulation is actively used by government agencies, private contractors, and to a lesser extent, political parties. Human, bot, and cyborg (a blend of automation with human curation) accounts are being employed. There is no evidence of the United States’ use of computational propaganda in foreign countries; however, it was reported that a fake social network in Cuba had been created by the USAID.

The current spread of computational propaganda, as troubled as it already appears, is obviously just a beginning. Its further growth and maturation will be augmented by new technologies, such as AI, VR, and IoT. Eventually, countries and societies will have to deal with this phenomenon. Unfortunately, there are no signs that it’ll happen any time soon.


About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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