Disinformation in Ghana: Here’s how cyber troopers manipulate social media

Social media has become a crucial component of digital campaigning and mobilizing support. While politicians and political parties have leveraged social media to share their ideas, the platforms have created an opportunity for widespread mis/disinformation aimed at shaping public opinion.

The 2020 Industrialized Disinformation Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation report published by Oxford Internet Institute has shown that Ghana and 80 other countries use social media to spread political disinformation.

The report highlights the trends of computational propaganda and the evolving tools, capacities, strategies, and resources used to manipulate public opinion around the world.

The Industrialized Disinformation Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation report uses content analysis, literature review, case studies and expert consultations to capture and analyse a wide range of public documents that clarify globally organised manipulation campaigns.

According to the report, government or political party actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online are known as cyber troops. They were responsible for disrupting elections, democracy and human rights activities in 2020.

Who is using computational propaganda on social media?

The report cited government agencies, politicians and influencers as the main actors in social media manipulation and the spread of disinformation in Ghana. They use social media to shape public opinion, set political agendas, and propagate ideas.

Organisational forms and prevalence of social media manipulation in Ghana were from government agencies, politicians and parties, and citizens and influencers. The report found that government agencies increasingly used computational propaganda to shape public opinion in 2020 which was an election year in Ghana.

Computational propaganda involves using bots, algorithms or automation to disseminate misleading information on social media with purposeful intent.

According to the report, Government agencies involved in computational propaganda include communication or digital ministries, military campaigns, or police force activity.

“Some political actors have used the reach and ubiquity of these platforms to spread disinformation, suppress political participation, and undermine oppositional parties,” the report added.

The study found that political parties or politicians running for office used the tools and techniques of computational propaganda as part of their political campaigns.

Among the tools and strategies used for cyber trooping, human-curated fake accounts were the dominant in Ghana. People were intentionally behind the fake accounts to spread disinformation to the public in Ghana and in some 78 countries. They use low levels of automation but also engage in conversations by posting comments, tweets or private messaging of individuals via social media platforms.

The valence of cyber troop activities

The report describes valence as “the attractiveness (goodness) or averseness (badness) of a message, event, or thing.”

The report classified the valence and messaging strategies used by cyber troops into four categories. These are pro-government or pro-party propaganda, attacking the opposition or mounting smear campaigns, suppressing participation through trolling or harassment, driving division and polarising citizens.

The study showed that pro-government propaganda and attacks on the opposition were the most used messages when communicating with users online in Ghana.

Cyber troopers used disinformation and data-driven strategies as their major communications strategies. They used creative “so-called “fake news”” websites, doctored memes, images or videos, or other forms of deceptive content online.”

Cyber troopers also used data-driven strategies to profile and target specific segments of the population with political advertisements.

How cyber troops are resourced and coordinated

It revealed that Ghana was among countries with low cyber troop capacity. This involved small teams that may be active during elections but stop the activity until the next election cycle.

These teams operate domestically, with no operations abroad. The social media manipulation report also indicated that social media manipulation coordination was a centralised team.

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