PGI INSIGHT: United Kingdom – Social media manipulation to impact General Election discourse
- The manipulation of social media will impact campaigning for the 12 December UK general election and may threaten the integrity of the vote.
- Manipulation will target the most emotive campaign topics such as Brexit and the NHS.
- Groups seeking to influence UK politics or profit off advertising will use various types of manipulation to access the widest audience.
- This will polarise key political discourse, which, amid uncertainty over polling, may impact the vote and even the credibility of the result.
Role of social media
The UK social media community is sufficiently large to influence the general election. Around 45 percent of the population uses Facebook daily. Twitter and Instagram have 16 and 14 million UK daily users respectively. Daily use may also increase over the election period.
Assess the extent of social media manipulation is difficult. In March, Facebook reported it had taken down more than 100 UK-based inauthentic accounts, including far-right activists, some of which had more than 175,000 followers on the platform.
Misinformation will focus on the most emotive and polarising of political topics. The UK’s planned departure from the EU will be the largest target. A 14 November YouGov survey indicated voters identified more with a particular stance on Brexit than by political party. Brexit proposals for the leading parties and their members present the most susceptible target for manipulation on social media. Other campaign topics vulnerable to manipulation include the NHS, taxation, and efforts to tackle violent crime.
Methods of social media manipulation
PGI’s election monitoring team follow previously apolitical social media discussion groups repurposed in order to spam content and distribute false news articles. The administrator of a Facebook group or the owner of a Twitter feed can manipulate discussion by changing group names, flooding the narrative space with targeted political messaging, or changing openness settings from ‘public’ to ‘private’ to isolate a community and build echo chambers.
Such behaviour is commonly observed on social media platforms. In the group identified by Facebook in March, it noted that the groups and accounts changed names to attract more followers from various political backgrounds.
One example identified by PGI provides a clear example of the risk of foreign influence operations targeting the UK election. A Moscow-based administrator, identified as John, runs a central pro-Brexit Facebook page with six subsidiary groups, all promoting Brexit to a direct audience of more than 40,000 individuals. The administrator also manages three other ostensibly apolitical groups about bitcoin trading and expat communities, into which they feed regular pro-Brexit articles and recommend that members join the politicised groups operating under the central page.
John’s identity, whether authentic inauthentic, and his motive, whether financial of political, are unclear. However, the effects of his group remain, pushing politicised pro-Brexit narratives to a widening audience.
A less sophisticated form of social media manipulation is the spamming of the general election information space with hashtags, pictures or comments supporting their narrative and attacking narratives of their opponents. When social media users search a topic, algorithms return the most popular posts and trends. The most popular, the logic runs, is the most posted.
Gaming the algorithms is relatively easy for entities maintaining significant numbers of profiles on social media sites. For instance, one pro-Labour account floods Instagram with repurposed anti-Conservative posts. Each post’s hashtags are the same, targeting both what would otherwise be genuine political conversations within #conservativeparty, and apolitical conversations within #asda.
Pseudo News Sites
Social media serves as an aggregator for news articles on the general election. If users share articles bearing false narratives, audiences of thousands within online communities will be misinformed. Pseudo news sources came to prominence in 2016, with thousands being run with polemic narratives to generate advertising revenue. Often, links from pseudo news sources attempt to gain on-sight credibility by imitating names of mainstream outlets, such as CNNN, or doctor thumbnails to replicate those of the BBC. Such details are often overlooked in the rapid scroll of social media content. In the heated Brexit debate, misinformation might be supported by a brexitnews.tv link to add veracity to the claim.
Misinformation will have a lasting impact on political discourse in the UK by polarising narratives on key voting issues. In an environment where no parties are polling at a majority, a significant level of misinformation may affect the results of the 12 December vote. Even a small change in the vote may alter the course of coalition negotiations.
If it emerges that there has been a significant extent of misinformation during campaigning, there is a chance of lasting grievances, and questions over the legitimacy of the vote. If evidence, or perceived evidence, of social media manipulation by a foreign government or a political party arises, this could have serious political consequences and further damage the integrity of UK democracy.
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