Sept. 26 (UPI) -- A new cybersecurity study said Thursday organized disinformation campaigns have spiked and now exist in at least 70 nations around the world -- more than twice the number there were just two years ago.
The 26-page analysis by Oxford University shows a surge in political propaganda, based on data from international governments, civic organizations and news media.
"In each country, there is at least one political party or government agency using social media to shape public attitudes domestically," the report states. "Social media has become co-opted by many authoritarian regimes. In 26 countries, computational propaganda is being used as a tool of information control in three distinct ways."
The researchers said the disinformation has been used to suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents and bury dissenting opinions. It added that Facebook is the platform used most often in such campaigns -- and identified China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela as the nations mostly involved in the efforts.
China has become the newest major player for global information, researchers wrote, whereas before Beijing was limited in its disinformation capability to local platforms like Weibo.
"The danger is the proliferation [of the skills]," Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at social media research company Graphika, told The New York Times. "Anybody who wants to influence the 2020 election may be tempted to copy what the Russian operation did in 2016."
Twitter and YouTube are also increasingly used in disinformation campaigns, the study said.
The study said, in all, 26 authoritarian states and government entities have used disinformation as a tool to suppress public opinion and press freedom and discredit criticism and opposition.
"The affordances of social networking technologies -- algorithms, automation and big data -- vastly changes the scale, scope, and precision of how information is transmitted in the digital age," lead author Samantha Bradshaw wrote.
"Although social media was once heralded as a force for freedom and democracy, it has increasingly come under scrutiny for its role in amplifying disinformation, inciting violence, and lowering trust in the media and democratic institutions."
The report identified 52 countries it says have used disinformation and media manipulation to mislead users, and 47 more use state-sponsored trolls to attack opponents.
"A strong democracy requires access to high-quality information and an ability for citizens to come together to debate, discuss, deliberate, empathize and make concessions," Oxford Internet Institute Director Philip Howard said.
"Although there are an increasing number of government actors turning to social media to influence public attitudes and disrupt elections, we remain optimistic that social media can be a force for good creating a space for public deliberation and democracy to flourish."