SINGAPORE: Governments and political parties around the world are increasingly using social media to manipulate public opinion, according to a recent report by researchers from the University of Oxford.
There is evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries and territories, said the report. That is up from 48 in 2018 and 28 in 2017.
"The use of computational propaganda to shape public attitudes via social media has become mainstream, extending far beyond the actions of a few bad actions," said the report's authors.
The study focused on what it called "cyber troops", which it defined as government or political actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online.
In particular, there is evidence that fake accounts – including bots and those manned by humans - are being used by cyber troopers to spread pro-government propaganda, censor freedom of speech, mount smear campaigns or to drown out dissenting opinions.
Evidence of manipulation was found in 70 countries and territories, including seven in Southeast Asia - Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Others include Australia, China, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Singapore was not among the 70 countries and territories analysed in the study.
Evidence of political parties or politicians using computational propaganda during elections were found in 45 of the 70 countries and territories analysed, the report said.
The study included instances of politicians who amassed fake followers, such as US senator Mitt Romney and former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, and political parties using social networks to spread or amplify disinformation, as in the case of the WhatsApp campaigns in India and Brazil.
CHINA INCREASINGLY USING GLOBAL PLATFORMS: REPORT
The report, titled 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, also found that while China's computational propaganda has focused mainly on domestic platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, it is increasingly turning to a global audience.
"In 2019, the Chinese government began to employ global social media platforms to paint Hong Kong's democracy advocates as violent radicals with no popular appeal," said the report.
“Beyond domestically bound platforms, the growing sophistication and use of global social networking technologies demonstrates how China is also turning to these technologies as a tool of geopolitical power and influence."
The study also found that Facebook remains the dominant platform for cyber troop activity around the world. Increasingly, cyber troopers are also turning to Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp.