Governments and individuals are widely using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter for promoting lies, misinformation and propaganda to manipulate public opinion around the world, an alarming nine-countries study has said.
According to the new set of studies from the University of Oxford, countries like Russia, where around 45% of active Twitter accounts are bots and Taiwan — where a campaign against President Tsai Ing-wen involved thousands of heavily co-ordinated accounts sharing Chinese mainland propaganda — contribute to the dirty politics on social media.
Citing Philip Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford, The Guardian reported on Tuesday that "the lies, the junk, the misinformation" of traditional propaganda is widespread online and "supported by Facebook or Twitter's algorithms".
One of the techniques to alter people's opinion is to build fake accounts to automate them to like, share and post on the social networks.
According to the report, these accounts serve to game algorithms to push content on to curated social feeds and drown out real issues by populating social networks with untrue information. As the number of likes and shares is large, users tend to believe the content that manipulates their opinion.
The researchers found that in the US, the propaganda took the form of "manufacturing consensus" — creating the illusion of popularity so that a political candidate can have viability where they might not have had it before.
The report also found evidence of institutional support for the use of bots.
"Bots massively multiply the ability of one person to attempt to manipulate people. Picture your annoying friend on Facebook, who's always picking political fights. If they had an army of 5,000 bots, that would be a lot worse, right?" Samuel Woolley, the project's Director of Research, was quoted as saying in The Guardian.
One country that the researchers found different from others was Germany where fear of online destabilisation outpaced the actual arrival of automated political attacks.
Germany has implemented world-leading laws, requiring social networks to take responsibility for what gets posted on their sites.
"Germany leads the way as a cautionary authority over computational propaganda, seeking to prevent online manipulation of opinion rather than addressing already present issues," the report noted.
Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused technology giants Facebook and Google of "narrowing perspective" and demanded that they make public their privately-developed algorithms.
"These algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they narrow our breadth of information," she had said.
Though the company has taken a number of measures to prevent fake news from spreading, there are still concerns being raised.
The findings were recently presented to a group of "senior" representatives from the technology industry in Palo Alto, California.