KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 14 — Malaysia is among 81 countries where the manipulation of public opinion through social media remains a growing threat to democracies around the world, a global study has found.

According to a 2020 media manipulation survey by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), organised social media manipulation campaigns have been found in 81 countries, up from 70 countries in 2019, with global misinformation being produced on an industrial scale by major governments, public relations firms and political parties.

“Now more than ever, the public needs to be able to rely on trustworthy information about government policy and activity,” its director and the report’s co-author Prof Philip Howard said.

“Social media companies need to raise their game by increasing their efforts to flag misinformation and close fake accounts without the need for government intervention, so the public has access to high-quality information.”

On Malaysia’s cybertrooper activity, OII said there such teams showed clear evidence of “medium-capacity” capabilities, with a more consistent form and strategy, involving full-time staff members who are employed year-round to control information space.

“Cybertroopers”, a term originating in Malaysia but has now increasingly been used worldwide, refers to a person who is paid to disseminate political propaganda on the internet, particularly on social media platforms.

“These medium-capacity teams often coordinate with multiple actor types, and experiment with a wide variety of tools and strategies for social media manipulation,” the OII team said in the report while adding that some of the teams even conduct influence operations abroad.

The report said Malaysia’s cybertrooper activity is mainly from human accounts and fake bot accounts. OII said fake bot accounts are highly automated accounts designed to mimic human behaviour online.

OII said such strategies in Malaysia have been employed by government agencies, politicians and political parties, private contractors, civil society organisations, citizens and influencers.

In its “Global Disinformation Order” report last year, OII said social media accounts driven by cybertroopers in Malaysia that include accounts on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter were used to spread pro-government or pro-party propaganda, attack the Opposition in smear campaigns and suppress participation through personal attacks or harassment.

Dr Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author said the 2020 report highlights the way in which government agencies, political parties and private firms continue to use social media to spread political propaganda, polluting the digital information ecosystem and suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

“A large part of this activity has become professionalised, with private firms offering disinformation-for-hire services,” she said.