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An extensive new Oxford University study shows that governments, political parties, and NGOs spend well over half a billion dollars around the world to influence elections and public opinion, most of it in a completely unregulated and secretive manner. We speak to the study’s co-author, Samantha Bradshaw

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the term ‘fake news’ became widely used mainly by the candidate Donald Trump. Let’s listen.

More than ever before, social media became an arena for disseminating information, often false information, to sway public opinion this way or that way. It was orginally seen and reported as a masterfully orchestrated campaign by strategic players such as Steve Bannon, who used a provocative content and a mixture of truth and false information to bait people into believing things such as Hillary Clinton being involved in a pedophile ring.

Only in 2018, a year after Trump was inaugurated, it became increasingly clear that the manipulation of the social media was not done by individuals or even by political groups and campaigns, but by highly professional companies hired, such as Cambridge Analytica, to design strategies with content of so-called fake news, but also to use complex datamining methods in order to know how to disseminate the information in the most effective way. The method is now, as we know it, is considered what troll farms do, and the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said this week that the social media campaign intended to skew the results of the U.S. presidential election in 2016 was part of a major change in how the Internet became a battlefield over public opinion. Let’s listen.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We are facing an urgent, evolving crisis in cyberspace. Our adversaries’ capabilities online are simply outpacing our stovepiped defenses. In fact, I believe that cyber threats collectively now exceed the danger of physical attacks against us. This is a major sea change from my department and for our country’s security. I wish I could tell you that we’ve rounded a corner, but last year was the worst ever in terms of cyber attack volume. Without aggressive action to secure our networks, it is only a matter of time before we get hit hard in the homeland. Two years ago, as we all know, a foreign power launched a brazen, multifaceted influence campaign to undermine public faith in our democratic process and to distort our presidential election. Let me be clear: Our intelligence community has it right. It was the Russians. We know that. They know that. It was directed from the highest levels.

SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about all of this and more with me is Samantha Bradshaw. She’s a senior fellow at the Canadian International Council, where she researches computational propaganda. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, and her dissertation is on the government use of social media to spread disinformation. Now, I thank you so much for joining us today, Samantha.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Samantha, we have just discovered very early this year that Cambridge Analytica was quite involved in the 2016 presidential campaign, and with the Trump campaign in particular, possibly because of their connection to Robert Mercer, and Steve Bannon, and so forth. But you in the UK just realized that they have also been involved in terms of the Brexit vote and the Brexit referendum in particular trying to sway people’s opinion on Brexit. Tell us about what you discovered about their involvement in the Brexit campaign, and how they did it.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Yeah, that’s correct. At the time of that we saw lots of what we call ‘junk news’ being spread over social media. Junk news is conspiratorial, highly polarizing content that’s not necessarily true. So it has an element of what we call fake news to it. But it also includes a lot of that really polarizing content that’s designed to divide people. We saw a lot of that being shared over social media not only in a very widespread way where, you know, there was political thoughts or bits of code designed to mimic human behaviour spreading and amplifying these messages, giving a false sense of popularity around the messages behind them. But we also saw microtargeted ads to particular individuals or communities who these messages might speak to more, and a lot of these advertisements were targeted based on our data and the data of UK voters.

SHARMINI PERIES: Samantha, this isn’t isolated. We know that it is taking place in many other parts of the world. In fact, some of these companies are selling these strategies to the various campaigns, political campaigns out there. Give us a sense of who the main players are in terms of the world of Analytica, how Facebook and other social media sites are involved in or used in terms of their strategies as well.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Yes. So, increasingly we’re seeing more governments and more political parties turning to social media to exploit these systems to spread junk news and disinformation to voters in democracies. It tends to be during election cycles where we see political parties hiring companies like Cambridge Analytica to run these campaigns for them. But in more authoritarian regimes where there aren’t so many rights, we tend to see disinformation still occurring in these spaces. But it’s more of a tool of social control, and it is part of their broader strategy for restricting freedoms online.

SHARMINI PERIES: And how is Cambridge Analytica using our personal data in Facebook, for example, to target their campaigns.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Yes. So, every time we use the Internet we generate data about ourselves. And you know, social media is included on that. Everything that we click on it generates detailed profiles about who we are as individuals and who we are as voters. And so Cambridge Analytica has amassed a bunch of this information about populations all over the world; not just in the UK, but also in the United States and other countries, as well. And then they use that data to identify certain communities, individuals, and their ideologies and their values. And then that information is fed to the political parties, who will then target specific messages to those communities based on their preferences.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Samantha, at least political campaigns in the U.S. are huge periods of time when larger amounts of money are spent, it used to be on television and television advertising, but more and more on social media. In your assessment, how much money is being spent on this?

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Yes. It’s really hard to trace the spending of political parties on these sorts of strategies and techniques. Part of the reason is because of the laws around campaign spending and how much political parties are required to report. When we do our fieldwork to interview bot developers, for example, who are working on the campaigns, a lot of the money, we can’t actually connect it back to a particular political party. And this is because these are subcontracts of subcontracts. So a party in the United States might hire a big political communications firm that will then subcontract some of that work out to another company, who will require a Facebook specialist, who will then hire a few different people to do certain things on just Facebook. And then there might be a similar contract out for Twitter, or a similar contract out for Instagram. And because you’re only required to report about two levels of spending, you start to lose some of that information.

So it’s really hard to say exactly how much money each campaign has been spending. When we released our report recently that kind of looked at this phenomenon more globally, we had about 48 countries, and dating back until about 2010. From publicly available information, we found half a billion dollars being spent by governments and political parties on these kinds of strategies. So there’s definitely big business behind it. But putting a solid number, it’s still very hard to do.

Samantha, if you are on the receiving end of these campaigns by, say, Cambridge Analytica, you are getting a mixture of believable and unbelievable content. That’s what makes it so provocative and shocking, and you click on it, or you pay attention to it. Tell us the way in which, as far as you have assessed, the way in which they tailor the content and specifically reach people who are vulnerable to that content.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Yes. So, a lot of the strategies that have been refined for commercial marketing purposes, to sell us shampoo, or slippers, or any kind of commercial goods, are now being used in politics. You know, So now we’re not only being sold these commercial products but we’re being sold world leaders. We’re being sold politicians. And so the content and the strategies that a lot of these companies employ are the same sorts of things that we see in the commercial environment. It’s identifying groups of people. It’s identifying what they’re interested in, what they like, what they don’t like, and then tailoring those messages to their preferences.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Samantha. Now, tell us a bit more here about the way in which this affects the democratic development, democratic processes like elections, as well as democracy itself in many of these countries. How it is now getting manipulated by these companies and campaigns.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Yeah, so in general for democracy to work we need to be able to come together to negotiate consensus, to talk to one another. We don’t always have to agree with each other, but it’s really important that we have our open platform where people can discuss ideas about politics. We don’t want political parties or other interested groups trying to amplify their messages over others. We want people to be able to have organic conversations about really important topics.

And so in terms of how it affects our overall democracy, it really depends on each specific country context. For a lot of emerging democracies there aren’t high levels of media literacy. There’s a lot of new people coming online and using these platforms. They may not actually know how to google for alternative sources of news. And so these kinds of strategies can have a much more deteriorating effect on a lot of the emerging democracies that we’re seeing. In countries like the United States and the UK, we’ve had people that have been using technology for, for years. You know, I was born on the Internet, pretty much. I belonged to that generation of people who grew up attached to a computer. But even with that said, media literacy is a really, really important part of this problem.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Samantha, I thank you so much for joining us. There’s so much more to discuss, because I would like to know if these strategies were used for electing Macron in France, or in terms of what’s going on in Brazil with the Lula campaign, and so on. And I know all of which various people, if not yourself, are working on in terms of this project. So I would love to have you back, and we can dig further into other such strategies that are affecting our democracies. I thank you today for joining us.

SAMANTHA BRADSHAW: Great. Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).