Politicians are increasingly hiring private companies to disseminate disinformation online, according to researchers who have uncovered campaigns by third-party contractors targeting 48 different countries over the past year.
The Oxford Internet Institute has said the market for “pay-for-disinformation” is booming, with advertising, marketing and public relations companies offering to manipulate online opinion for political parties and governments.
The OII said private contractors help identify groups to target with messages, then “trick certain political messages” either through fake accounts, or with armies of robots, or automated accounts. .
Researchers said they found evidence of at least $ 60 million in spending on such campaigns since 2009, although the actual total may be much higher.
Hiring a third party to spread disinformation allows political groups to keep their distance. For example, Facebook said last year that he found an “unauthentic coordinated” online activity likely linked to Turning Point USA, a pro-Donald Trump youth campaign group, and led by Rally Forge, a marketing firm, prior to the US election.
Facebook banned Rally Forge from its platform, but Turning Point escaped punishment. Rally Forge did not immediately respond to a request for comment and did not comment on its ban at the time.
The report included the relabeling of the Conservative Party Twitter account as ‘factcheckUK’ in a political debate ahead of the 2019 general election as an example of ‘party-led disinformation’. He noted that the digital communications company Topham Guerin had hired by the Tories after his success in the Australian election earlier that year.
Several campaigns have spread across borders. Canada-based public relations firm Estraterra banned by Facebook after finding a campaign that covered El Salvador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador and Chile. Topham Guerin and Estraterra did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“For a long time our perception of propaganda and disinformation was that it came from governments,” said Sam Woolley, professor of propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin, “rather than considering the fact that they were part of an advertisement. company.”
“What we have realized is that a lot of the companies that build disinformation online are also based in democratic countries,” Mr Woolley said, adding that many use marketing jargon such as “reputation for recruiting. To cover up their activities.
“The level of sophistication has certainly increased,” said Oumou Ly, a member of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center who studies disinformation. Techniques include buying comment space, artificially linking keywords to search terms to increase visibility, and “storytelling whitening,” in which media is created to give existing stories more credibility.
Some 317,000 accounts and pages were deleted by Facebook and Twitter between January 2019 and November 2020, according to the study. OII said it found disinformation campaigns by private entrepreneurs targeting 25 countries in 2019, showing the scale of the increase.