A report from Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford tells the story of how India is among the states where political parties use online actors to influence and for manipulating public opinion online.
- As per a new Oxford report, at least 7 instances where “cyber troops” were manipulating public opinion online in India.
- The report observed that India along with Pakistan is among 7 countries where political parties are ‘active online for propaganda’.
- Globally, there is 150 percent in the number of countries with organized public opinion manipulating campaigns online.
- Most alarmingly, cyber troops are present in 70 countries and work mainly to silence political dissent, disgrace opposition and suppress fundamental human rights.
The internet is a boon for the common population of the world for many reasons. In India, it is beckoning a digital age where smartphones with cheap 4G plans connect hundreds of millions. However, there’s a dark side to the proliferation of the internet and social media in India, which serves in spreading disinformation, surveillance of citizens and manipulating public opinion online.
Political propaganda online has reached an all-time high and created a new in terms of voter manipulation in India.
The issue was first highlighted when Facebook removed more than 700 pages ahead of India’s 2019 General Elections. The mega crackdown on fake accounts spreading hate narratives and misinformation is now followed up by a new Oxford report. India along with Pakistan is among 7 countries where political parties are ‘active online for propaganda’.
Manipulating public opinion online
As per the new report, India is among a small group of seven nations that leverage computational propaganda to influence voters and global perception on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, India’s peers in this group are Russia, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran.
Furthermore, as per the comprehensive report on disinformation campaigns by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford, 70 countries had similar political campaigns running in 2019. The figure is also growing at an alarming trajectory. For instance, in 2018 it was 48 and in 2017 there were 28 nations indulging in online propaganda.
Out of the 70 countries, government actors had programs running in 44 countries.
These were digital ministries of military promotion. Likewise, Political parties or leaders led campaigns were active in 45 countries. The number also marks a growth of 150 percent in the number of countries with organized public opinion manipulation campaigns on social media platforms.
How India is manipulating public opinion
Facebook’s April crackdown in India, right before the General Elections highlighted the new political tool for the first time. Out of the 700 pages, groups and accounts removed, many were linked to India’s two leading political parties, the opposition Indian National Congress and the in-power Bharatiya Janata Party.
The new report observed at least 7 instances where “cyber troops” were indulging in manipulative behaviour in India.
2 instanced were related to political parties or politicians, 1 by citizens and influencers, and 1 by civil society organization. However, private contractors came out on top as the most prevalent cyber troops in the country with 3 or more instances by private contractors.
However, in terms of platforms used in India to manipulate public opinion, Facebook remains the top choice for political manipulation. Furthermore, cyber troops use WhatsApp and Twitter for such purposes much more than YouTube and Instagram.
Spreading Disinformation and Curbing Dissent
Both bot-led automated handles and human-led propaganda is used for online manipulation in India. The types of campaigns are: promoting own political narrative, attacking and trolling political opposition, and spreading hate messaging to stem polarization. Furthermore, India has surprisingly widespread use of media manipulation and disinformation tactics.
Consequently, IT Cells are now making data-driven strategies to reach out and influence voters based on preferences and emotional quotient. Moreover, online actors try solidifying misinformation through hashtag flooding. Troll armies also target dissidents and journalists criticizing the government. The only prevalent technique wherein India was not indulging is the mass-reporting of content or accounts.
The Global Cyber Troops Market
As per the three-year research, cyber troops in the 70 countries work mainly to silence political dissent. They also disgrace political opposition and suppress fundamental human rights. So, cyber troops have become an entire industry of sorts where ‘multiple teams’ of ‘50-300 people’ engage for state actors in such work. These come under social contracts and advertising expenditures valued at more than USD 1.4 Million.
The report also labels India as having ‘medium capacity’ for ‘cyber troops’. The only countries with troops equal to India or more are the US, the UAE, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Moreover, there are other countries where political parties-sponsored cyber troops manipulate public opinion online. The list also includes Pakistan, the UK, and Brazil.
The tool helps state actors in ‘surveilling, censoring, and restricting digital public spaces.’
Thus, such actions from governments and political parties undermine the real strength and essence of a democracy where voters are free to choose. Manipulating public opinion on a large-scale and with an analytical approach has, therefore, become the new weapon for politicos. So, as per the authors, The ‘co-option of social media technologies’ gives ‘authoritarian regimes’ an effective way to manipulate public discussions. Moreover, it helps them spread their propaganda online.
- The only globally prevalent technique wherein India was not found indulging is the mass-reporting of content or accounts.
- IT Cells make data-driven strategies to reach out and influence voters and solidify misinformation through hashtag flooding.
- Cyber troops are a USD 1.4 Million industry where ‘multiple teams’ of ‘50-300 people’ engage for state actors through social contracts.
- As per the authors, the ‘co-option’ of social media gives ‘authoritarian regimes’ an effective way to manipulate public discussions.