Last month the esteemed Oxford Internet Institute announced a major report on disinformation and “cyber troops” with a press release describing an “industrial-scale problem.” Worldwide press coverage echoed claims that OII had revealed the “increasing role” private firms play in spreading computational propaganda. Actual evidence presented in the annual “survey” of social media manipulation, however, is much thinner than the hype.
While the report’s website declares, “Cyber troop activity continues to increase around the world,” inside the report, OII claim they show “publicly identified” cases of disinformation operations have “grow[n] in number over time.” They point to their own studies counting public reporting as evidence of actual operations increasing since 2017. Citing OII’s last report, which was based on similar evidence, The New York Times in 2019 heralded that “the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns more than doubled to 70 in the last two years.”
The big problem here is the phrase “publicly identified.”
As a longtime propaganda scholar, I know we struggled to get disinformation and propaganda reported on before the 2016 US election and Brexit, when journalistic interest suddenly grew. In 2015, a NexisUni search reveals, the Times mentioned disinformation in just 33 articles; there were 95 in 2016, 274 in 2017, 586 in 2018, and 684 in 2019. This is, of course, an indication of increased reporting of disinformation.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, having taken years to acknowledge the crisis, have slowly introduced measures to identify and take down large swathes of fake accounts and disinformation. They suddenly invested millions in research and accompanying lobbying and PR, to persuade the world they are acting against disinformation. Increased stories in the press increasingly hailed their identification and takedowns of disinformation. Does the cited figure of 317,000 accounts and pages removed by Facebook and Twitter in 2019–20 indicate the problem appeared at that scale in 2019 when these operations were found or reported? Of course it doesn’t.
More researchers are finally looking for disinformation now, which is good, so it’s more likely to be found and reported than in 2017. Since 2017, millions and millions have been spent on researching disinformation campaigns; a $100 million investment was made by the Omidyar Network alone to fight misinformation and support journalism. ”Disinformation researcher” has also become an increasingly common job title in the West: Countering disinformation became a lucrative industry as startups and big-name scholars now compete with think tanks, nonprofits, and journalistic fact-checkers for funding. For the OII’s Computational Propaganda project, which conducts the annual survey, the institute itself has secured generous funds—$218,825 from the National Science Foundation, a $2.2 million European Commission/European Research Council Award, and $500,000 from the Ford Foundation. Its new report also acknowledges they received unstated amounts of funding from the Adessium Foundation, Civitates Initiative, Hewlett Foundation, Luminate, Newmark Philanthropies, and Open Society Foundation.
Within the study, OII “surveys” a large number of countries’ reporting, but disinformation is underreported in some parts of the world. As news organizations in liberal democracies appointed specialist disinformation reporters covering the phenomenon daily, other countries experienced crackdowns on speech. OII prioritized mainstream media reports as most reliable, which tend more often to focus on disinformation by foreign policy adversaries and attacks against allies. The OII methodology does admit, “Given the nature of disinformation operations, there are almost certainly cyber troop activities that have not been publicly documented.” All that money could have gone to researching that dark industry.
The income generated by influence campaigns might be a more reliable measure of industry scale than reporting. OII’s report states that $10 million has been spent on Facebook political advertisements, only one aspect of a campaign. They say $60 million has been spent by state actors on computational propaganda by private firms since 2009—a figure that seems low, and it’s not very clear how it was derived. In the US alone (one country OII acknowledges as hiring companies for computational propaganda), the Pentagon spent $4.7 billion in 2009 on its “hearts and minds” campaigns. The following year The Washington Post reported on 37 companies in psychological operations and related activities including social media. Later contracts included in 2014 a $1.5 billion contract for support with psychological operations and information operations to a group of contractors, reported in The Intercept, and in 2017 Northrop Grumman got a $500 million contract for psychological operations. The defense industry is so opaque that the specific activities this money was spent on is often secret, but it is no less important to acknowledge overall industry spending in each country when giving an assessment of governments’ contracts with private firms for propaganda. There is huge money to be made from state actors in influence, worldwide.