Aug 20, 2019 - Technology

Autocracies rely on social media as a potent propaganda weapon

illustration of a marionette strings attached to a globe

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Twitter and Facebook announced Monday the takedown of coordinated misinformation campaigns from the Chinese government, the latest in a list of global regimes caught using social media to exploit their own people, spread propaganda or retain power.

Why it matters: While mostly Western leaders around the globe push to hold social media companies accountable for large-scale misinformation campaigns, autocratic regimes have become increasingly reliant on social media technologies.

  • Russia: Facebook found 2 Russian-backed misinformation campaigns earlier this year targeted at users in Eastern Europe, including Russia, along with Central Asia.
  • Myanmar: Facebook admitted last year that its platform was used by Myanmar military officials to systemically target a mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

The big picture: There was a longtime narrative that social media and cyber manipulation was caused by everyday hackers who sought to disrupt society, but increasingly, tech companies and law enforcement are finding that there are more abuse cases by governments than rogue actors.

What's next: After uncovering the Chinese efforts Monday, Twitter said it will no longer accept advertising from from "state-controlled news media entities."

Flashback: Last year, Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse, found that U.S. government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which typically broadcasts abroad, bought ads on Facebook targeted at users in the US.

Go deeper: How online propaganda weaponized social media

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