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    Spreading De-Tweet: Government Propaganda 'Cyber Troops' on the March Worldwide

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    Campaigns to manipulate public opinion via false or misleading social media postings have become standard political practice across much of the world, with information ministries, military units and political operatives shaping the flow of information on such networks in dozens of countries, Oxford University has reported.

    Adding to an expanding body of evidence that governments use online tools to influence politics, researchers at the University's Computational Propaganda Research Project found 29 countries exploit social media to shape opinion domestically or with foreign audiences.

    The tactics are deployed by authoritarian regimes and democratically-elected governments alike — although the team were struck by how much of this activity and innovation flows out of Western "liberal democracies" such as Australia, Israel, the UK and US.

    ​These propaganda efforts exploit every available social media platform — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — and rely on both humans and computerized "bots" to disinformation campaigns. The latter dramatically amplify propaganda capabilities by automating the process of preparing and delivering posts, and can even interact with human users (and fellow bots). Bots can post far more often than human users, in some cases more than 1,000 times a day; human users dubbed "cyborgs" rely on similar automation technology to bolster the power of their accounts as well.

    The researchers' reportTroops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation, draws on news accounts of social media propaganda in 29 countries to reach broader conclusions about the global growth of techniques, including issuing "fake news" and attacking journalists or countering critical social media posts with messages supporting a government position or political view. These efforts are often clandestine, with the origin of the social media posts obscured via phoney account information.

    Examples cited in the report include; Israel's 350-strong army of social media accounts on multiple platforms, operating in English, Hebrew and Arabic; a UK propaganda campaign posting fake videos on YouTube in an attempt to prevent Muslims from becoming radicalized and joining the war in Syria; political forces in Mexico using bots and humans to attack journalists and spread disinformation; cyber troops in Saudi Arabia flooding negative Twitter posts about the regime with unrelated content and hashtags; the Czech Republic almost charmingly posting fact-check responses to claims they see as inaccurate in online articles.

    Cyber troops will often engage in capacity‐building activities, such as training staff to improve skills and abilities associated with producing and disseminating propaganda, providing rewards or incentives for high‐performing individuals and investing in research and development projects. Some governments offer classes, tutorials and even summer camps to help prepare cyber troops for engaging with users on social media.

    In some countries, English teachers are hired to teach proper grammar for communicating with Western audiences. In Israel, the government provides students with scholarships for their work on pro‐Israel social media campaigns, and in North Korea, young computer experts are trained by the government, with top performers selected to join military universities.

    In some cases, these efforts are powered by fully-fledged departmental bureaucracies, with high and rising staff numbers and fixed payrolls — in others, bands of online activists or ad hoc groups receive seed funding to carry out their existing activities. Some efforts have even been outsourced to private vendors that specialize in influencing opinion through social media.

    The report also makes clear that propaganda has long been a dark art practiced by governments — digital tools merely make their techniques more sophisticated. Moreover, the authors suggest governments have been inspired in their efforts by the way activists have used social media to spread their messages and build support. Online tools, such as data-analytics software and the like, allow governments to tailor messages for specific groups, maximizing propaganda's impact. 

    "In many countries, cyber troops have multiple affiliations, funders, or clients. So while the primary organizers of social media manipulation may be government agencies or political parties, it is also important to distinguish those countries where many kinds of actors make use of cyber troops. No doubt the organization of cyber troops will continue to evolve. It will likely remain, however, a global phenomenon," the report concluded. 


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