The techniques used for online state propaganda are diversifying. An increasingly common practice that does not concern only authoritarian regimes, according to a report by the American NGO Freedom House made public Wednesday.
Campaign on Twitter, infiltration of political groups on WhatsApp, false Facebook accounts: at least 30 governments and not least are actively engaged in online manipulation. That’s nearly a dozen more than a year ago, reveals the 2017 report of the American NGO Freedom House on freedom of expression on the Internet, published Tuesday, November 14.
The report’s authors note that this state propaganda is becoming more professional and organized. It is as much about influencing national and international opinion as it is about silencing the opposition.
“Keyboard Army” or “Digital Militia”
China, which keeps its cyberspace on a leash like no other country, as well as Russia, its “Internet Research Agency” and it’s supposed efforts to influence the US presidential election, won the prize of the state propaganda online. But their examples have been small, especially among authoritarian regimes.
The latter are allocating more and more resources to this propaganda. Sudan has made its “cyber-jihadists”, as they are called, state officials whose main mission is to nucleate the opposition groups on Facebook and WhatsApp.
Venezuela is a case study of this drift towards an ever more organized online manipulation
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte continues to work his “Keyboard Army”, which contributed to his victory in the May 2016 election. These Internet users can be paid up to 10 dollars a day to create fake accounts on social media to slander opponents online and multiply positive messages to give the impression of widespread popular support for its policies.
Venezuela is a case study of this drift towards more and more organized online manipulation little versed in the art of propaganda on the Internet until recently, the government launched in spring 2017, the “Great digital movement Robinson” and the “digital militias”. Two initiatives aimed at enlisting citizens to relay pro-government messages on social networks.
Authoritarian regimes do not have the monopoly of online propaganda. “The most sophisticated examples come from democracies,” says researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute in a July 2017 report on states’ online manipulation techniques. South Korea is running campaigns on Twitter to discredit political opponents, and Israel can count on about 400 “volunteers” willing to outsmart those who criticize government policy. Germany, the United States or the United Kingdom also has their cyber-propagandists.
If methods are similar to authoritarian regimes, democracies “focus more on fighting foreign agents,” notes the Oxford Internet Institute. Thus the propaganda activities of the 77th Brigade of the British army are essentially aimed at fighting against extremist and terrorist speeches. Democracies can also be less aggressive. Israel has a very strict rule, according to researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute: do not seek to personally discredit an opponent on the Internet, but focus on the propagation of “positive messages”.
The Hebrew State has put in place an original system of reward to encourage students to take care of the image of the country
All these state efforts to influence opinion have a price. The budgets for these operations are rarely public, but the Oxford Internet Institute has been able to obtain certain rates. By contacting specialized private agencies used by states to fight the web, the researchers found that in Mexico, a propaganda operation costs an average of $600,000. Prices go up when it comes to a big democracy like the United States, where the government can pay up to $9 million for an online campaign.
The Hebrew State has put in place an original reward system to encourage students to look after the image of the country. The most active can be awarded a scholarship, say the authors of the report of the Oxford Internet Institute. Azerbaijan rewards “volunteers” for cyber-propaganda by promising them a faster career progression.
Examples that illustrate how much online state propaganda is booming, says Freedom House. For the Oxford Internet Institute, this is only a beginning, and “it will have to expand even more”.