India figures in a small bunch of seven countries — along with China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela — where state actors use computational propaganda on Facebook and Twitter to influence global audiences, according to a comprehensive report on disinformation campaigns released by the Computational Propaganda project at Oxford on Thursday.
The report found at least seven instances of “cyber troops” in India, and private contractors came out to be the most active “cyber troops” in the country.
These troops are “government or political party actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online”, according to the report, and only Malaysia, Philippines, the UAE, and the US had as many or more instances as India. The report labelled India as “medium-capacity” for “cyber troops”. It stated, “Multiple teams ranging in size from 50-300 people. Multiple contracts and advertising expenditures valued at over 1.4M US.” Other countries in the category are Brazil, Pakistan, and the UK.
Over three years, the researchers examined 70 countries in which these operations do three things: suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opposition, and drown out political dissent.
In India, cyber troop activity was found in two instances by a political party or politicians, three or more instances by a private contractor, on one instance by civil society organisation, and one by citizens and influencers.
In the first big crackdown on fake accounts for “inauthentic behaviour” in the run-up to Lok Sabha polls in April, Facebook removed more than 700 pages, groups and accounts from India. Those taken down include accounts associated with the Congress IT cell and Silver Touch Technologies, a company that has worked for the government and the BJP. They were taken down for attempts to deceive users of their identities, according to the company.
The report found that in India, bot-led automated manipulation as well as human-led manipulation spread propaganda for a party, attacked its political opposition, and spread polarising messaging designed to drive divisions.
In India, it found the use of disinformation and media manipulation, data-driven strategies, amplifying content by flooding hashtags, and troll armies that harass dissidents or journalists online. The only technique that the researchers did not find in India that was present in other countries was mass-reporting of content or accounts.
“The co-option of social media technologies provides authoritarian regimes with a powerful tool to shape public discussions and spread propaganda online, while simultaneously surveilling, censoring, and restricting digital public spaces,” the report says.
Of the 70 countries, 44 had campaigns conducted by government actors, such as a digital ministry or the military, and 45 had campaigns led by political parties or politicians, the report found. This is a 150-per cent increase in countries using organised social media manipulation campaigns.
This year, 70 countries saw campaigns of this kind; the corresponding figures 48 in 2018, and 28 in the year before.
The methodology involved news reporting analysis, a secondary literature review of public archives and scientific reports, drafting country case studies, and expert consultations.
On a platform-wise breakdown of the campaigns, India appeared on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter but not on YouTube and Instagram. Even with a growth of these activities on WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube, the report found that Facebook still firmly remained the platform with the most manipulation activity.