The grim consequences of a misleading disinformation study


Last month, The highly regarded Oxford Internet Institute has announced a major report on disinformation and “cyber troops” Press release describing an “industrial scale problem”. Global media coverage echoed claims that OII has exposed the “growing role” of private companies in the dissemination of computer propaganda. The actual evidence presented in the annual social media manipulation “survey”, however, is much thinner than the hype.

While the report website declared, “Cybergroup activity continues to increase around the world,” report says, OII says cases of “publicly identified” disinformation operations have “increased[n] in number over time. They cite their own studies counting public reports as evidence of a real increase in operations since 2017. Citing the latest OII report, which was based on similar evidence, The New York Times in 2019 ad that “the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns has more than doubled to 70 in the past two years.”

The big problem here is the phrase “publicly identified”.

As a longtime propaganda scholar, I know we struggled to report disinformation and propaganda ahead of the 2016 US election and Brexit, when journalists’ interest suddenly increased. In 2015, NexisUni research revealed, the Times mentioned disinformation in only 33 articles; there were 95 in 2016, 274 in 2017, 586 in 2018 and 684 in 2019. This is of course an indication of an increase report of disinformation.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, having taken years to recognize the crisis, have slowly introduced measures to identify and eliminate large swathes of fake accounts and misinformation. They suddenly invested millions in search and accompanying pressure and PR, to persuade the world that they act against disinformation. Increase in stories in the press increasingly praised their identification and suppression of misinformation. Is the city Does the figure of 317,000 accounts and pages deleted by Facebook and Twitter in 2019-2020 indicate that the problem appeared on this scale in 2019 when these operations were discovered or reported? Of course not.

More researchers are finally looking at for disinformation now, which is good, so it’s more likely to be found and reported than in 2017. As of 2017, millions and millions have been devoted to researching disinformation campaigns; an investment of $ 100 million was made by the Omidyar Network alone to fight disinformation and support journalism. The “disinformation researcher” has also become an increasingly common job title in the West: the fight against disinformation has become a lucrative industry as startups and big researchers now compete with think tanks, nonprofit organizations and journalistic fact checkers for funding. For the OII’s Computational Propaganda project, which conducts the annual survey, the institute itself has secured generous funds – $ 218,825 from the National Science Foundation, $ 2.2 million European Commission/ European Research Council Prize and $ 500,000 of the Ford Foundation. Its new report also acknowledges that they have received unreported amounts of funding from the Adessium Foundation, Civitates Initiative, Hewlett Foundation, Luminate, Newmark Philanthropies and Open Society Foundation.

As part of the study, the OII “investigates” a large number of country reports, but disinformation is underreported in some parts of the world. While news outlets in liberal democracies appointed disinformation journalists covering the phenomenon daily, other countries have experienced repression of speech. OII has prioritized mainstream media reports as the most reliable, which more often tends to focus on disinformation by foreign policy opponents and attacks on allies. The OII methodology makes admit, “Given the nature of disinformation operations, there is almost certainly some cyber-gang activity that has not been publicly documented.” All that money could have gone research this dark industry.

Revenue generated from influencer campaigns might be a more reliable measure of industry scale than reports. The OII report says $ 10 million was spent on political ads on Facebook, just one aspect of a campaign. They say $ 60 million has been spent by state actors on computer propaganda by private companies since 2009 – a figure that seems low, and it’s unclear how it was calculated. In the United States alone (one country recognizes that OII hires companies for computer propaganda), the Pentagon spent $ 4.7 billion in 2009 for its “Hearts and Minds” campaigns. The next year The Washington Post reported on 37 companies in psychological operations and related activities, including social media. Subsequent contracts in 2014 included a $ 1.5 billion contract for psychological and information operations support to a group of contractors, reported in Interception, and in 2017 Northrop Grumman obtained a 500 million dollar contract for psychological operations. The defense industry is so opaque that the specific activities that this money was spent on are often secretive, but it is no less important to recognize the overall spending of the industry in each country when evaluating contracts. governments with private companies for propaganda purposes. There is a tremendous amount of money to be made from influencing state actors around the world.

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