If it was once common to hear mass anti-government movements in the Middle East described as “Twitter uprisings” and “Facebook revolutions,” today these social media platforms are more likely to be linked to their potential for manipulating public opinions and trying to influence elections, including the one that saw Donald Trump elected. Almost 90% of social media posts were against Donald Trump, yet he clearly won the election. Trump now has a huge following on social media, far more “real” followers than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
“The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.,” Trump said on CBS’ 60 Minutes during the Republican primaries that he would later go on to win. “I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent.” For Trump’s digital media director for the campaign, Brad Parscale, “Facebook was the 500-pound gorilla, 80 percent of the budget kind of thing.” Trump’s own enthusiasm for the social media giant appears to have waned: “Facebook was always anti-Trump,” he tweeted in September 2017.
Now the focus is less on Trump’s extensive personal social media following and more on the roles that Facebook and Twitter may have played in alleged Russian interference in the election. Congress called on Facebook and Twitter to disclose details about how they may have been used by Russia-linked entities to try to influence the election in favor of Trump.
But despite the much-publicized case in the U.S., the pervasiveness of these political strategies on social media, from the distribution of disinformation to organized attacks on opponents, the tactics remain largely unknown to the public, as invisible as they are invasive. Citizens are exposed to them the world over, often without ever realizing it.
Drawing on two recent reports by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and independent research, Newsweek has outlined the covert ways in which states and other political actors use social media to manipulate public opinion around the world, focusing on six illustrative examples: the U.S., Azerbaijan, Israel, China, Russia and the U.K.
It reveals how “Cyber-troops”—the name given to this new political force by the OII—are enlisted by states, militaries and parties to secure power and undermine opponents, through a combination of public funding, private contracts and volunteers, and how bots—fake accounts that purport to be real people—can produce as many as 1,000 social media posts a day.
IT experts agree that social media platforms have thousands, if not millions, of “fake” accounts. Creating fake accounts is easy and can be done manually or through programs designed for such a purpose as well as programs designed to give users “fake likes” as well. Any user can buy “likes”, making their tweets and posts appear to be far more popular than they actually are.
So what is an honest person like you supposed to do?
Use social media for posting pictures and videos and for being entertained, but never take it too seriously. Like public polls, social media posts can easily be faked. Be aware, be smart, and surf wisely.