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PH, 27 other countries use ‘cyber troops’ to manipulate opinion – study

Gelo Gonzales
PH, 27 other countries use ‘cyber troops’ to manipulate opinion – study
A University of Oxford study says one trait of cyber troops in the Philippines is individual targeting, which is 'used to silence political dissent online' and often leads to 'real-life threats and reputational damage'

MANILA, Philippines – A University of Oxford study detailed how governments around the world are deploying “cyber troops” to manipulate public opinion. 

The study, titled “Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation,” identified 28 countries where there is enough evidence of cyber troop use and deployment, among them, the Philippines.

The study defines “cyber troops” as “government, military or political party teams committed to manipulating public opinion over social media.” 

The others on the list are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, North Korea,the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Korea, Syria, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Its primary method of research was the analysis of content from news articles appearing in major search engines Google, Yahoo! and Bing. Using selected keywords, their queries produced results from major news organizations (BBC, Reuters, Wired Magazine), commentary-oriented websites (Buzzfeed, Quartz, The Verge) and expert blogs. Filtered out were articles from “content farms, social media posts or personal or hyper‐partisan blogs.” 

Two Rappler articles were cited: “Duterte’s P10M social media campaign: Organic, volunteer‐driven” where  Nic Gabunada, the social media manager of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, divulged details on the structure of their online campaign; and “Propaganda war: Weaponizing the internet.”

Two other news articles on the Duterte government’s cyber troop operations were cited in the study: “Money and credulity drive Duterte’s ‘keyboard army'” from BusinessMirror and “Rodrigo Duterte’s Army of Online Trolls” from US magazine New Republic.

Citing the latter, the study said that sometimes, winning political parties and candidates may continue to employ social media manipulation when they assume power: “For example, in the Philippines, many of the so‐called ‘keyboard trolls’ hired to spread propaganda for presidential candidate Duterte during the election continue to spread and amplify messages in support of his policies now he’s in power.” 

Drawing from its media sources, the study found that the Philippines is among the 11 countries where bots have been deployed by government actors. Some of the other countries are South Korea, Syria, Russia, and Iran.

The study also cites other traits said to be found in the Philippines: 

  • Both “positive” and “negative” social media interactions are used. “Positive” interactions are those that “reinforce or support the government’s position or political ideology” while “negative” interactions involve “verbal abuse, harassment and so‐called ‘trolling’ against social media users who express criticism of the government.”
  • “Individual targeting,” which it says is more often “a persistent aspect of the internet ecosystem that is used to silence political dissent online” and is “one of the most dangerous forms of cyber troop activity, as individuals often receive real‐life threats and suffer reputational damage.” 

Here’s the chart lifted from the study showing other countries’ use of cyber troops: 

  • Some cyber troops in the Philippines are volunteers; some are paid. Private contractors have been hired, with Nic Gabunada being identified. The Partido Demokratiko Pilipino‐Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) was also identified as a political party that has made use of cyber troops. The chart on the types of cyber troop actors found across the globe, also lifted from the study, is shown below: 

Duterte called the University of Oxford  “a school for the stupid people,” when asked about the study in a news briefing on Monday, July 24. (READ: Duterte says online defenders hired only during campaign)

The global picture

Cyber troops are hardly unique to the Philippines. The study says that organized social media manipulation and cyber troops are a “global phenomenon” that will likely remain and continue to evolve. (READ: Facebook says gov’ts exploited its platform to manipulate opinion)

The paper cites some examples. Opinion leaders are a frequent target for cyber troops. In Russia and Mexico, journalists are frequently targeted by government-sponsored attacks. Finnish journalist Jessica Aro is said to have received a series of “abusive emails, was vilified as a drug dealer on social media, and mocked as a delusional bimbo in a music video posted to YouTube” after her investigation on abusive pro-Russian online posts. 

In Poland, opinion leaders like bloggers, journalists, and activists are carefully targeted with messages that manipulate their thoughts on their followers’ beliefs and values. 

Cyber troops can be very creative in the way they attempt to affect online opinion. In Saudi Arabia, cyber troops engage in “hashtag poisoning” wherein trending hashtags that criticize the government are spammed to disrupt the discussion. In North Korea, there have been reports of stolen South Korean accounts being used to spread political propaganda. And again in Russia, one cyber trooper ran a fortune-telling blog with the goal of “weaving propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the non‐political musings of an everyday person.” 

Cyber troops have been used in other countries too to win elections. The Australian Coalition Party artificially beefed up social media likes, shares, and followers in the 2013 elections; while employees from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service launched a smear campaign against the opposition in the lead-up to their 2012 presidential election. 

It’s not all bad though, according to the paper. Sometimes, cyber troops can be used for noble objectives. In the United Kingdom, cyber troops were known to have created “anti-radicalization” YouTube videos designed to deter British Muslims from going to Syria where ISIS operates. The British Army’s 77th Brigade also has “non-lethal psychological operations” that combat terrorist propaganda. And in the Czech Republic, state-sponsored cyber troops have been documented posting comments that fact-check information instead of pushing pro-government sentiments or harassing dissidents. 

Based on what the Oxford study found, however, the UK and Czech examples are the exception not the norm. As seen in the examples, the intention of many of today’s organized social media manipulation is to push a political party or an administration’s interest, and to quiet those who oppose. – 

“Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” was authored by Samantha Bradshaw a Dphil. candidate (Oxford’s term for PhD) at the Oxford Internet Institute; and Philip N. Howard, a Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute.

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.