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Persuasion or Manipulation? Limiting Campaigning Online


To tackle online disinformation and manipulation effectively, regulators must clarify the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate campaign practices.

Democracy is at risk, not only from disinformation but from systemic manipulation of public debate online. Evidence shows social media drives control of narratives, polarization, and division on issues of politics and identity. We are now seeing regulators turn their attention to protecting democracy from disinformation and manipulation. But how should they distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate online information practices, between persuasive and manipulative campaigning?

Unregulated, the tactics of disinformation and manipulation have spread far and wide. They are no longer the preserve merely of disaffected individuals, hostile international actors, and authoritarian regimes. Facebook’s periodic reporting on coordinated inauthentic behaviour and Twitter’s on foreign information operations reveal that militaries, governments, and political campaigners in a wide range of countries, including parts of Europe and America, have engaged in manipulative or deceptive information campaigns.

For example, in September 2019, Twitter removed 259 accounts it says were ‘falsely boosting’ public sentiment online that it found to be operated by Spain’s conservative and Christian-democratic political party Partido Popular. In October 2020, Facebook removed accounts with around 400,000 followers linked to Rally Forge, a US marketing firm which Facebook claims was working on behalf of right-wing organisations Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group. And in December 2020, Facebook took down a network of accounts with more than 6,000 followers, targeting audiences in Francophone Africa and focusing on France’s policies there, finding it linked with individuals associated with the French military.

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