Intelligence Expert: How Twitter and Facebook Are Being Co-Opted by Governments for Control

Oct 23

Sophisticated automated bots are being increasingly used on Twitter and Facebook by foreign governments as a method to silence dissent and to target journalist, according to Sam Wooley, Digital Intelligence Lab director.

“Governments including Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also within South America and Southeast Asia are making use of state-sponsored trolling as a mechanism to silence dissent and to target journalist to basically stop people from reporting,” said Wooley.

Sam Wooley, Digital Intelligence Lab director, discussed how Twitter and Facebook are being co-opted by authoritarian governments to silence dissent in a recent interview:

Bots Are Being Used to Amplify Attacks

Whereas before we saw a lot of very basic automated accounts on social media being used to amplify likes or retweets, now we are actually seeing bots being used to amplify attacks targeting harassment of journalists and women. This isn’t just happening in the United States, it is happening all around the world and arguably has been happening for quite some time.

State-Sponsored Trolling Used to Silence Dissent

We have found that state-sponsored trolling spreads all around the world. Governments including Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also within South America and Southeast Asia are making use of state-sponsored trolling as a mechanism to silence dissent and to target journalist to basically stop people from reporting.

It’s a real strike to democracy when Twitter and Facebook which were heralded as platforms for free speech are now being co-opted by governments for control.

Thousands of Twitters Accounts Used in Simultaneous Attacks on Journalists

We found that to some degree nations are learning from one another. Oftentimes what happens is 10,000 to 15,000 accounts on Twitter will be used to simultaneously attack multiple journalists to threaten and harass them. Also, a lot of the time these accounts are used to attack activists, to attack political opposition, and even to do transnational political attacks against news media and other organizations.

The Most Sophisticated Propaganda Comes From Cyborg Accounts

It’s a real challenge Twitter and other social media companies face to track automation and to track human-driven propaganda. Oftentimes the most sophisticated propaganda comes from cyborg accounts. They use automation to reach out to people to amplify the attacks and people add that element of sentiment of really targeted harassment.

Twitter has had since the mid-2000’s to try and combat this problem and it’s existed well before 2016. It’s a problem that should have been in hand a long time ago.

There Should be Flagging of Automated Accounts

There should be flagging of automated accounts. Any accounts that make use of automated accounts especially for political purposes should be known to the user. There needs to be curation of harmful accounts and they’ve got to keep deleting accounts and they have to look beyond the United States.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the companies really started paying attention to this problem, but this problem has existed around the world especially in authoritarian countries for a long time. It’s time for them to start doing some real cleaning of the house.

Propaganda Bots Are Much More Sophisticated

In my research and in my conversations with people who make and build this bot making technology they often say they are one step ahead of the social media companies and I think this remains true. The bots that are being made now to proliferate propaganda attacks or harassment are much more sophisticated than they used to be.

One of the things that are happening is the advent and use of headless browsing bots which don’t log into the API, the backend of a site like Twitter, they actually login through the home page. The detection algorithm on a site like Twitter has a really hard time finding them. The companies really have a bit of a mess on their hands.

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