Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Social media manipulation in Europe

The US is not the only place where people try to manipulate public opinion.

Europe Worries as Facebook Fights Manipulation Worldwide
Iranian Facebook "stamps"
Facebook revealed this post to be the work of an Iranian-backed campaign aimed at Britain, the first known influence campaign with a target outside the United States.

The picture was just like many of the other Facebook posts criticizing Britain’s decision to leave the European Union: a fake commemorative stamp showing a person preparing to shoot himself in the foot.

But on Tuesday, Facebook revealed that the unremarkable post was anything but. It originated from an Iranian-backed group aimed at Britain, in what the company said was the first known instance of a foreign influence campaign aimed at people outside the United States.

Facebook has spent the past two years trying to block foreign propaganda in the United States. But its disclosure of hundreds of fake accounts and pages, including the one tied to the Iranian-backed group, revealed that the foreign manipulation of elections through Facebook extends across the globe. Tactics used by Russia-linked groups ahead of the 2016 presidential election are being applied in Britain, the Middle East and Latin America.

Europe, where Facebook has more users than in the United States, is particularly worried. The company’s announcement exacerbated concerns that the region will be a regular target of foreign propaganda efforts — including ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections, which will help set the policy direction in Brussels for the next five years.

The discovery immediately added momentum in Europe to pass new laws to clamp down on social media platforms, including rules to remove terrorist content and to restrict how voters are targeted with political messages online…

“Facebook can be used for evil, that’s a fact,” said Claude Moraes, a British member of the European Parliament who leads a panel that has been investigating Facebook’s role in elections. “Facebook can be used to manipulate elections, that’s a fact.”

Russia has long viewed the European Union as an adversary, and influencing the parliamentary campaigns is a way to diminish its clout, said Mr. Moraes, who organized a recent series of hearings that featured testimony from Facebook executives.

“I have no doubt that Facebook will be a critical component” of Russia’s efforts to undermine the European Union, he said…

But unlike those targeted at Americans, the posts made public on Tuesday have a more international bent, including some written in Arabic and Farsi. And in identifying Iran for the first time, Facebook acknowledged that countries other than Russia… are now trying to manipulate its platform to intensify political divisions abroad…

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