As technology becomes more advanced and accessible, its role on the global political stage has increased — for better or worse. While the internet has revolutionized communication, evidence now points to governments and other state actors using new technologies to try to shape election outcomes.
A report co-authored by researchers at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs investigates these manipulation efforts, drawing from more than 920 media reports and 380 research reports.
The authors identify 23 new foreign influence efforts, 64% of which were conducted by Russia, with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates accounting for most of the remainder.
“Russia’s frequent use of foreign influence efforts is not surprising,” said co-author Jacob N. Shapiro, director of Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) and professor of politics and international affairs. “The Russian government has a long history of influence operations against its own citizens, including using various social media platforms to distract citizens from political issues in the country.”
Shapiro conducted the work with Diego Martin, a former research specialist at ESOC now pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics at Purdue University, and Julia Ilhardt ’21, an undergraduate student working for ESOC. The team looked at both foreign influence efforts aimed at other countries, as well as domestic influence efforts targeting their own home countries.
In 2016, the influence of social media took center-stage in the U.S. presidential election, with widespread claims that “fake news” and Russian interference shaped election outcomes. According to the ESOC report, Russian trolls and bots used foreign influence efforts to pretend they were American profiles and amplify polarization among Democrats and Republicans.
At the time, Republican candidate Donald Trump received more support and fewer attacks from these foreign bots than his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, leading researchers to believe Russian efforts mainly aimed to increase Trump’s chances of winning the election. Meanwhile, domestic actors in the U.S. used influence efforts on social media platforms to spread controversial views and misinformation to inflate support for their preferred candidate.
The report also found 20 cases across 18 different countries in which governments applied tools similar to those employed by foreign influence efforts on their own citizens. Most surprising is that such domestic influence efforts were used not just by autocracies, but also by democratic states in order to drum up support for particular candidates and discredit political opponents. For example, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party conducted concentrated social media campaigns to increase support for their candidates from 2012 to 2018.
Although rates of foreign and domestic influence remain high in specific states, the authors only found three new cases of foreign influence efforts in 2019. One possibility the authors note is that international norms against these underhanded tactics of political manipulation are strong, with the exception of a few states conducted the vast majority of influence efforts.
“New platforms create novel opportunities for a wide range of political actors,” the authors said. “State actors have used social media to influence politics at home and abroad by promoting propaganda, advocating controversial viewpoints, and spreading disinformation.”