New Delhi: A study by the University of Oxford has found that India is among 70 nations where political parties and government agencies have employed “cyber troops” for social media manipulation.
Published by the university’s Oxford Internet Institute (OII) on 26 September, the study details how cyber troops are tasked with the job of manipulating public opinions online.
Their job entails: “building an inventory of the evolving strategies, tools, and techniques of computational propaganda, including the use of ‘political bots’ to amplify hate speech or other forms of manipulated content, the illegal harvesting of data or micro-targeting, or deploying an army of ‘trolls’ to bully or harass political dissidents or journalists online”.
Titled ‘2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation’, the study looks at the forms, strategies and techniques, as well as the organisational capacities of these troops in all 70 countries. It has found that India’s cyber troops were of ‘medium capacity’, which means they were full-time staff members employed year-round to “control the information space”.
“These medium-capacity teams often coordinate with multiple actor types, and experiment with a wide variety of tools and strategies for social media manipulation. Some medium-capacity teams conduct influence operations abroad,” it notes.
The study also found that India was one of seven countries involved in the “highly secretive phenomenon” of foreign influence operations through social media. It presents Facebook and Twitter’s revelation that India, as well as China, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, Pakistan and Iran use computational propaganda “to influence global audiences”.
OII’s report also claims that Sri Lankan cyber troops had received formal training in India.
Private contractors, political parties as cyber troops
Cyber troops in India constitute multiple teams ranging in sizes of 50-300 people and involving multiple contracts as well as advertising expenditures valued at over $1.4 million.
The participants comprise politicians, political parties and private contractors sanctioned to spread disinformation, the study has found. Civil society organisations, citizens, and influencers were also found to be engaging in manipulation, only to a lesser degree.
It did not find evidence of government agencies explicitly involved in social media manipulation campaigns, but did find evidence of the troops spreading pro-authority/party propaganda. Indian troops constitute both human trolls and bots.
The study also found that the troops were involved in smear campaigns, and drove division and polarisation through their social media interactions. India fulfilled three out of the five strategies employed by troops — the other two being “distracting or diverting conversations or criticism away from important issues” and “suppressing participation through personal attacks or harassment”.
Manipulation campaigns have increased by 150%
The study also notes that organised social media usage for manipulation campaigns have increased by as much as 150 per cent globally in the past two years. “We found evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017,” it notes.
Out of these, 52 nations have used disinformation and media manipulation to mislead users, which is the “most common communication strategy”. The other is “use of trolling, doxing or harassment”.
In 2018, 27 countries had used state-sponsored trolls to attack political opponents or activists through social media, but this year the number has grown to 47.
“The co-option of social media technologies should cause concern for democracies around the world – but so should many of the long-standing challenges facing democratic societies,” the study concludes.