Social media manipulation organised in Malta – report

According to a report published by the University of Oxford, Malta is one of 70 countries where social media manipulation campaigns are organised by, among others, governments. The report found that in Malta at least one Government agency, one politician and party were guilty of some form of manipulation.

The ‘2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation Report’, stated that in Malta, what it described as, cyber troops either attacked the opposition and mounted smear campaigns, or suppressed participation through personal attacks or harassment.

The report concluded that there is evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017. In each country, there is at least one political party or government agency manipulating social media to shape public attitudes domestically.

Political actors influencing social media

This report focuses specifically on government or political party use of social media to manipulate public opinion. In Malta, the report found one Government agency, one politician and party, and one private contractor were manipulating social media influence operations.

Bots and human-run accounts used in Malta

Fake accounts are used by cyber troops to spread computational propaganda. Over the past three years, the report tracked the prevalence of three types of fake accounts, being bot, human, or cyborg.

Bots are highly automated accounts designed to mimic human behaviour online. They are often used to amplify narratives or drown out political dissent. In this study,  evidence of bot accounts being used was found in 50 of the 70 countries. However, even more common than bots are human-run accounts, which do not make use of automation. Instead they engage in conversations by posting comments or tweets, or by private messaging individuals via social media platforms.

In Malta, the study found that both bots and human-run accounts are being used.

Attacks on opposition

Valence describes how attractive or unattractive a message, event, or thing is. For the 2019 report, the researchers expanded their typology of messaging and valence strategies that cyber troops use when engaging in conversations with users online. These can be spreading pro-government or pro-party propaganda, attacking the opposition or mounting smear campaigns, distracting or diverting conversations or criticism away from important issues, driving division and polarization, and suppressing participation through personal attacks or harassment

In Malta, it resulted that most cyber troops either attacked the opposition and mounted smear campaigns, or suppressed participation through personal attacks or harassment.

Disinformation created in Malta

In 52 out of the 70 countries we examined, cyber troops actively created content such as memes, videos, fake news websites or manipulated media in order to mislead users.

According to this research, Malta suffers from the creation of disinformation or manipulated media, as well as trolling, doxing and harassment.

The report explained that posts by activists, political dissidents or journalists often get reported by a coordinated network of cyber troop accounts in order to game the automated systems social media companies use to take down inappropriate content. Trolling and the takedown of accounts or posts can happen alongside real-world violence, which can have a deep and chilling effect on the expression of fundamental human rights.

Credit: 2019 Social Media Manipulation Report

Malta believed to have medium-capacity cyber troops

Medium cyber troop capacity involves teams that have a much more consistent form and strategy, involving full-time staff members who are employed year-round to control the information space.

Apart from Malta, the study found medium-capacity teams are present in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.

The researchers concluded that social media, which was once heralded as a force for freedom and democracy, has come under increasing scrutiny for its role in amplifying disinformation, inciting violence, and lowering levels of trust in media and democratic institutions.

You can access the full document here.