In the online world, the use of ‘sock puppets’ has been common for some time. This would involve companies using fake accounts to write reviews or otherwise present a favorable impression of them online. With alleged Russian collusion in the American Presidential campaign dominating the news agenda, it’s a timely reminder of the way governments use just such a tactic themselves too.
Indeed, the latest report from Freedom House, titled Freedom on the Net 2017, highlights just how big this is, with manipulation found to play a part in at least 18 different elections around the world in the past year alone.
“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” the authors say. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”
Such tactics were deployed by 30 different governments around the world, which represented nearly half of the 65 nations assessed for the report.
The importance of the media
I wrote recently about the EU’s DEBUNKER project, who believe the media have a crucial role to play in ensuring that reliable information is published online. It was a point echoed in a recent study by Harvard University that was published in Science.
The researchers wanted to test the impact the media had on public opinion. They persuaded 33 outlets, ranging from venerable establishments to new media upstarts. At various stages over an 18 month period, each of these outlets would release a pre-arranged story on one of 11 broad subjects. The researchers then monitored discussion of that topic on social media over a two week period.
The analysis revealed that in the six days after the stories were published, there were approximately 13,000 more posts on that subject than there had been during the control week used to compare against. In statistical terms, that’s a 10% increase in chatter. Suffice to say, the impact of stories published on more established publications was greater than when the story was published on small publications.
It does offer a glimmer of hope therefore, that if the media could only be persuaded to uphold high standards of publishing themselves, then their power of the public discourse remains considerable.
Indeed, a study from 2014 showed the influence of certain ‘nodes’ in the spread of information. It explored political discourse online, and found that certain influential voices would be incredibly influential in the general online discussion, with many people simply regurgitating what those influncers said on a topic.
Unfortunately, a recent study from the Tow Center suggests such high standards are seldom attained.
“Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement,” the authors say.
The report suggests that poor practice by various online publishers is accelerating the spread of fake news.
“Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well,” the study concluded.
The authors say that whilst much of the fake information is spread by less reputable sources, the quality outlets nevertheless sit by and let the rumors spread, doing little to quell them.
If the DEBUNKER project hopes for a media that can gladly play such a role, therefore, they might be in for quite a wait.