Oxford Report Highlights Rise of 'Disinformation-For-Hire' on Social Media

Social media manipulation by political actors appears to be an industrial scale problem.
Chris Young

The number of countries using organized social media manipulation campaigns went up by 15 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, a new report by Oxford University says.

Of the 81 countries surveyed, all of their citizens were targeted by social media manipulation campaigns, up from 70 countries in 2019.

The report serves as an indictment of the recent trend of social media manipulation by political actors, which only appears to have worsened since the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 came to light.


The alarming rise of 'cyber troops'

Disinformation has "become a common strategy, with more than 93% of the [surveyed] countries (76 out of 81) seeing disinformation deployed as part of political communication," Oxford University explains in a press statement.

The team behind the study — from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford — warns that social media manipulation is rising at an alarming rate, with governments spending millions on private sector 'cyber troops,' whose sole purpose is to misinform the public.

What's more, citizen influencers, such as youth groups and civil society organizations, are used to spread manipulated messages.

"Our report shows misinformation has become more professionalized and is now produced on an industrial scale," says Professor Philip Howard, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, and the report’s co-author.

The authors highlight the need for social media companies to increase their efforts to flag misinformation and close fake accounts without government intervention.

Social media manipulation statistics

The current situation is "polluting the digital information ecosystem and suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press," Dr. Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author. 

"A large part of this activity has become professionalized, with private firms offering disinformation-for-hire services," she continues.

The Oxford University report highlights the fact that $60 million has been spent on firms who sell misinformation-peddling bots as a service.

Though the report acknowledges firms such as Facebook and Twitter removed more than 317,000 accounts and pages from 'cyber troops' actors between January 2019 and November 2020, it calls on these companies to double their efforts in order to stem a situation spiraling out of control.

Here are some of the most alarming statistics from the report:

  • 79 countries used human accounts
  • 57 counties used bot accounts
  • 14 countries used hacked or stolen accounts
  • 76 countries used disinformation and media manipulation as part of their campaigns
  • 30 countries used data-driven strategies to target specific users with political advertisements
  • 59 countries used state-sponsored trolls to attack political opponents or activists in 2019, up from 47 countries in 2019
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