Dec. 22 (UPI) -- A new report by a NATO-accredited organization has found that despite efforts by social media companies to stymie inauthentic behavior, the conversations surrounding the verified accounts of two U.S. senators were "easily manipulated" on their platforms for the cost of a few dollars.
Published Monday, the report by the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence set out to test the ability of social media companies to identify and remove inauthentic behavior, finding that despite some variance between five key platforms none is doing enough to prevent the manipulation of their services.
"Manipulation service providers are still winning," the report said.
The five platforms examined were Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.
The researchers said they paid some $370 to 39 Russian manipulation services to funnel hundreds of thousands of interactions to the media accounts of Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn. In total, they purchased 1,150 comments, 3,726 shares, 9,690 likes and 323,202 views.
Of the 337,768 interactions purchased during the presidential campaign, 98% remained online after four weeks.
"We see that manipulation on social media remains too accessible," Janis Sarts, director of the NATO StratCom COE, said in a statement. "This is especially troubling during times of crisis, as these systems can be exploited to stoke up emotions and deepen vulnerabilities within our societies."
The report said Facebook and Twitter offered the most significant pushback against inauthentic behavior, with the former managing to remove as much as 90% of the fake views prior to the manipulation service providers restoring their work.
It also cheered Facebook for blocking the creation of inauthentic accounts but said it was also the only platform to show an increasing half-life for active inauthentic accounts.
Twitter also improved the speed at which it removed inauthentic accounts by 40% compared to the researchers' 2019 study. It was also reported to do it three times faster than Facebook.
TikTok was also included in the experiment this year but the researchers said it "seems to be nearly defenseless against platform manipulation" as none of the manipulations were removed.
It also said that Facebook's comment sections were the most difficult to manipulate due to the cost needed to pay real people to post the comments while Instagram was the easier to manipulate with 1,803 fake comments and 103 fake likes delivered rapidly to the senators' posts for only $7.30.
The senators both agreed to participate in the experiment, the researchers said.
The report calls for greater transparency and the development of new safety standards for the platforms as well as the establishment of independent and well-resourced oversight and an increase in efforts to deter manipulation.
"The results show that we need a universal set of rules that these platforms have to follow both in countering internal manipulation and for creating a safe environment for people who use them," Sarts said.