Pay to sway: report reveals how easy it is to manipulate elections with fake news
Fake News Machine research comes amid increasing concern about hacking elections and the ways that fake news on social media has manipulated voters
By Sam Levin
Political campaigns can manipulate elections by spending as little as $400,000 on fake news and propaganda, according to a new report that analyzes the costs of swaying public opinion through the spread of misinformation online.
The report from Trend Micro, a cybersecurity firm, said it also costs just $55,000 to discredit a journalist and $200,000 to instigate a street protest based on false news, shining a light on how easy it has become for cyber propaganda to produce real-world outcomes.
The Fake News Machine research paper comes at a time of increasing concern across the globe about the hacking of elections and the ways that fake news on social media has manipulated voters. The report delves into the underground marketplaces that can allow campaigns, political parties, private companies and other entities to strategically create and distribute fake content to shift public perceptions.
The analysis of Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern, and English-based fake news services found that these options offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional advertising and promotional efforts, often by manipulating social networks to spread dubious content.
“Whether you’re in China, Russia, Europe or the US, it’s very, very easy to buy these services,” said Simon Edwards, a Trend Micro cybersecurity architect.
With targeted spending, fake content can spark real protests, the report found. For example, campaigns can create and populate social media groups that discuss relevant ideologies for the cost of about $40,000, Trend Micro wrote.
To maximize the reach of the content, campaigns can spend $6,000 to gain about 40,000 “high-quality” likes. Within these fake news services, it can also cost $5,000 for 20,000 comments and $2,700 for a false story. Campaigns can further buy retweets and other promotional services, such as the placement of related videos on YouTube that help the stories go viral. It can cost $10,000 to announce and promote a resulting protest on social media.
A key ingredient, the report noted, is “fake news fabricated as truth that panders to its audience’s ideologies and promises an illusion of the future – enough to compel people to join an imagined cause”.
Manipulating election outcomes can also be relatively cheap for politicians and parties, according to the report. A campaign operator could buy targeted news websites for about $3,000 per site and then populate the pages with propaganda that masquerades as legitimate news. Maintaining the sites with relevant fake content costs $5,000 a month, and targeted social media promotion costs $3,000 a month.
Buying reposts and biased comments on its content can boost the campaign. Some of these networks will also distribute real news, allowing the sites to build a reputation and blur the line between propaganda and legitimate content. In total, a yearlong campaign with a $400,000 budget should be able to “manipulate a decisive course of action”, the research found.
A group that wants to attack a reporter can also easily mount a “four-week fake news campaign to defame the journalist”, the paper said. Weekly propaganda, promoted with 50,000 retweets, garnering 100,000 visits would cost $2,700 a week. In addition to discrediting the journalist, “a more daunting consequence would be how the story, exposé or points the journalist wanted to divulge or raise will be drowned out by a sea of noise fabricated by the campaign”, Trend Micro wrote.
The report also found that a social media account can become an online “celebrity” with 300,000 followers in just one month for the cost of about $2,600.
Given the effectiveness and low costs of these kinds of propaganda campaigns, some fear they could become commonplace in major elections.
“It’s important that we put a stop to this as soon as possible before it becomes mainstream,” Edwards said.
Following widespread debate about how fake news on social media may have contributed to the election of Donald Trump last year, companies like Facebook and Google have pledged a crackdown on the spread of misinformation.
But some of the highly publicized initiatives to prioritize fact checking and thwart false content have so far had little impact at Facebook.
Edwards said the research also highlighted the need for readers and social media users to become more educated in spotting false news: “It’s really important that people think about what it is they ingest and question everything you see.”