Twitter’s Trolls Are Coming for Sweden’s Election

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Twitter bots are proliferating ahead of Sweden’s election next month — and they are 40 percent more likely to support the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats than human users.

That’s the finding of the country’s Defense Research Agency, which says the social media platform has moved to suspend many of these malicious accounts.

Democracies across the world need to prepare for this threat: Radical parties, with or without external help, are using and perfecting this form of digital propaganda — because it appears to work so well.

It’s spreading, too. Sweden didn’t figure in this year’s list of 48 countries where Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project found evidence of social-media manipulation. In 2017, there were only 28 such countries.

If the U.S. elections threaten to turn into the “World Cup of information warfare,” as Facebook’s former Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos recently warned, the national championships are heating up, too.

In 14 of the countries highlighted in the Oxford report, among them the U.S., U.K., Mexico, Brazil, Austria and Poland, parties hired consultants to spread propaganda online. Their tools: bots and trolls that amplify fake news, make malicious comments, micro-target political messages and engage in “astroturfing,” the creation of fake evidence of grassroots support.

This activity is expanding beyond its roots on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The Oxford researchers noted attempts to optimize search-engine results as well as the growing use of messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Telegram, Line, WeChat, and even Tinder, a dating app, to spread propaganda.

The technology is evolving as social media platforms try to shut down obvious bot activity. In a recent article for the MIT Technology Review, Lisa-Maria Neudert, who is also part of the Oxford research project, predicted that artificial intelligence of the kind used to power digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa will search out susceptible users and guide them toward an extremist viewpoint.

Rather than broadcasting propaganda to everyone, these bots will direct their activity at influential people or political dissidents. They’ll attack individuals with scripted hate speech, overwhelm them with spam, or get their accounts shut down by reporting their content as abusive.

There’s a reason Neudert mentioned extremist viewpoints. Last year, she published a paper analyzing computational propaganda in Germany. There, the majority of the bots supported a far-right agenda. In the U.S., the Oxford researchers found that on both Facebook and on Twitter, Trump voters and “hard conservatives” are responsible for the bulk of traffic sent to “junk news” sites — essentially, propaganda factories. 

That matches the pattern the Swedish Defense Research Agency found. The Sweden Democrats, which never garnered the support of more than 6 percent of voters before 2014, are heading toward their best electoral performance, with polls predicting support for the grouping could surge to 20 percent.

This isn’t about foreign powers trying to influence the election, though. Russian troll farms and even intelligence services don’t have enough fluent Swedish speakers to get involved on a massive scale, especially to create fake news resources.

So the Swedish authorities aren’t screaming “Russian interference” — even if the Kremlin has an interest in promoting the success of European far-right parties because of their destabilizing effect.

The political bias of the bots can best be explained as the consequence of the distrust right-wing audiences everywhere have of mainstream media, which they perceive as leftist, internationalist and pro-immigrant.

People who don’t consume mainstream news for these reasons tend to be the most vulnerable to this kind of propaganda because they start off with the belief that the lying media ignore, bury or misreport real news. Anyone who claims to do otherwise automatically gets their trust. In Sweden, almost one in every five people doesn’t trust the mainstream media. That 20 percent likely intersects with the Sweden Democrats’ 20 percent base.

The radical left hasn’t had much electoral success yet with slogans of resisting their right-wing counterparts. But if it ever does, it will likely be thanks to similar manipulation techniques. The parts of society not served by professional journalists are the ones on which the propaganda experts from all sides are, and will keep, lab testing their tricks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.