The manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms has emerged as a critical threat to public life. Around the world, government agencies and political parties are exploiting social media platforms to spread junk news and disinformation, exercise censorship and control, and undermine trust in media, public institutions and science.
“The number of countries where formally organised social media manipulation occurs has greatly increased, from 28 to 48 countries globally,” says Samantha Bradshaw, co-author of the report. “The majority of growth comes from political parties who spread disinformation and junk news around election periods. There are more political parties learning from the strategies deployed during Brexit and the US 2016 Presidential election: more campaigns are using bots, junk news, and disinformation to polarise and manipulate voters.”
Overall, the use of organised social media manipulation campaigns is a big business. “We estimate that tens of millions of dollars are spent on this type of activity,” says Howard. “Some of the money may be spent on legitimate advertising on social media, but there is certainly a growing industry for fake accounts, online commentators, and political bots.”