- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2019

Facebook remains the most popular internet platform among governments manipulating public opinion online, researchers from the University of Oxford in the U.K. reported Thursday.

A three-year study of how governments and political parties use social media found that Facebook plays host to more “formally organized computational propaganda campaigns” than any other platform, the authors of the report wrote.

The researchers uncovered evidence of propaganda campaigns being conducted on Facebook by government or political actors in 56 different countries, effectively making the social network “the dominant platform for cyber troop activity,” according to the report, titled “The Global Disinformation Order 2019: Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation.”

“Despite there being more social networking platforms than ever, Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation,” the researchers wrote. “Part of the reason for this could be explained by its market size — as one of the world’s largest social networking platforms — as well as the specific affordances of the platform, such as close family and friend communication, a source of political news and information or the ability to form groups and pages.”

Launched by college students in 2004, Facebook has swelled in the last 15 years to boast around 2.1 billion active daily users across its flagship social network and sister services, including Instagram, a popular photo- and video-sharing platform, as well as the WhatsApp and Messenger chat apps.

Concerns about social networks being abused to manipulate public opinion domestically and internationally have similarly grew over the same span, especially following revelations in recent years about groups including Cambridge Analytica, a British firm that harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge to be used for political advertising purposes, and the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” accused of weaponizing several platforms to spread disinformation and propaganda to American audiences during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Several platforms have adopted new rules for users in response, though recent developments indicate companies continue to wrestle regularly with similar abuse. Facebook said earlier this month that it removed hundreds of accounts and pages for engaging in “domestic-focused coordinated inauthentic behavior” in Iraq and Ukraine, and Twitter said last week that it banned accounts originating in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Spain, Ecuador and China in connection with conducting prohibited “information operations.”

Twitter trailed Facebook as the second-most popular platform for governments to try to manipulate public opinion, according to the Oxford report. The researchers found evidence of propaganda campaigns from 47 countries occurring on Twitter, compared to 12 on YouTube, 12 on WhatsApp and eight on Instagram.

Including all platforms, political parties or governments in 70 counties have used social media as a means to shape attitudes domestically since 2017, the report said.

“We’ve developed smarter tools, greater transparency, and stronger partnerships to better identify emerging threats, stop bad actors, and reduce the spread of misinformation on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We also know that this work is never finished and we can’t do this alone. That’s why we are working with policymakers, academics, and outside experts to make sure we continue to improve.”

Reached for comment, YouTube pointed to the platform’s previous investments in policies, resources and products devoted to tackling misinformation, including existing systems in place meant to prevent abuse.

“Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the integrity of our service, is a clear violation of the Twitter Rules. We’ve significantly stepped up our efforts — investing in people, policies, and tech — to catch this behavior at scale,” said a YouTube spokesperson. “Research like this is the reason we’ve made this important choice. We believe that full transparency empowers public understanding of these critical issues.”

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