Private firms pocketing millions from disinformation-for-hire, report says

Jamie Harris, PA Science Technology Reporter
·2-min read

Private companies are increasingly being hired by governments and political parties to manipulate public opinion through social media, according to new research.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) – part of the University of Oxford – found evidence of 48 countries, including the UK, paying third-party firms to manage propaganda campaigns in 2020, almost double the number uncovered in the previous year.

More than £43 million has been spent on contractors since 2009, producing ever-more professionalised misinformation on an “industrial scale”, the report claims.

These companies are often tasked with creating deceptive social media accounts, identifying which people to target, and using bots to shape certain political messages.

“Our 2020 report highlights the way in which government agencies, political parties and private firms continue to use social media to spread political propaganda, polluting the digital information ecosystem and suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” said Dr Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author.

“A large part of this activity has become professionalised, with private firms offering disinformation-for-hire services.”

The UK was identified as among the worst for conducting social media influence operations, alongside the likes of the US, Russia and Libya, originating from Government agencies, political parties, private contractors, civil society organisations, as well as citizens and influencers.

In total, researchers claim 81 countries now use so-called cyber troops to spread computational propaganda and disinformation via social media, up from 70 last year.

The UK is mentioned in the report for using data-driven strategies to target political advertisements towards specific groups, citing an example from the 2019 general election, in which First Draft News identified that 90% of the Conservative Party’s Facebook advertisements in the early days of December 2019 promoted claims labelled as misleading by Full Fact.

While tech giants made efforts to combat misuse, more than £8 million has still been spent on political advertisements by cyber troops across the globe, the report suggests.

Co-author Professor Philip Howard, director of the OII, said: “Our report shows misinformation has become more professionalised and is now produced on an industrial scale.

“Now more than ever, the public needs to be able to rely on trustworthy information about government policy and activity.

“Social media companies need to raise their game by increasing their efforts to flag misinformation and close fake accounts without the need for government intervention, so the public has access to high-quality information.”