STRATCOMCOE: It's 'easy to circumvent sanctions' to buy Russian manipulation online

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The Rīga-based NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence (STRATCOMCOE) has a new report available.

Titled "Social Media Manipulation 2022/2023: Assessing the Ability of Social Media Companies to Combat Platform Manipulation" the research is the latest in a series of "social media manipulation experiments" in which STRATCOMCOE demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate facts and opinions online and how unable or unwilling social media companies are to do anything about it. 

"Overall, no platform has improved compared to 2021 and, taken together, their ability to prevent manipulation has decreased," says STRATCOMCOE's damning verdict on an experiment that was conducted in September and October 2022.

The experiment involves buying "inauthentic interactions" on social media and then seeing how good social media companies are at detecting and blocking such manipulation.

The answer would appear to be "not very good at all". STRATCOMCOE spent €168 on bogus engagement in the form of 1,225 comments, 6,560 likes, 15,785 views, and 3,739 shares on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and VKontakte, enabling them to identify 6,564 accounts used for social media manipulation purposes. Of the 27,309 fake engagements purchased, more than 93 per cent remained online and active four weeks later.

"Buying manipulation remains cheap. The percentage of accounts identified and removed by the platforms dropped. We demonstrate that the manipulation providers have circumvented sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It remains easy to pay for manipulation services with both Visa and Apple Pay. The platforms’ ability to combat manipulation by slowing the speed of delivery has declined. Today, 89 per cent of purchased inauthentic behaviour is delivered within one day. The vast majority of the inauthentic engagement remained active across all social media platforms four weeks after purchasing. Thus, the platforms’ moderation decisions appear to be only minimally responsive to user notifications," says a summary.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February has seen sanctions imposed and Russian access to many Western platforms restricted,  the Russian social media manipulation industry "seems largely unaffected" STRACOMCOE says.

"We observed that the industry rapidly adapted, and today it is easy to circumvent the sanctions to buy Russian manipulation with Western payment solutions," the report says.

"Buying manipulation remains cheap. The price today is roughly one third of the price in 2018."

The report is available to download and read free of charge here:

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