Samantha Bradshaw, University of Oxford
Philip N. Howard, University of Oxford
Cyber troops are government, military or political party teams committed to manipulating
public opinion over social media. In this working paper, we report on specific organizations
created, often with public money, to help define and manage what is in the best interest of the
public. We compare such organizations across 28 countries, and inventory them according to
the kinds of messages, valences and communication strategies used. We catalogue their
organizational forms and evaluate their capacities in terms of budgets and staffing. This working
paper summarizes the findings of the first comprehensive inventory of the major organizations
behind social media manipulation.
We find that cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon. Many different countries
employ significant numbers of people and resources to manage and manipulate public opinion
online, sometimes targeting domestic audiences and sometimes targeting foreign publics.
The earliest reports of organized social media manipulation emerged in 2010, and by
2017 there are details on such organizations in 28 countries.
Looking across the 28 countries, every authoritarian regime has social media campaigns
targeting their own populations, while only a few of them target foreign publics. In
contrast, almost every democracy in this sample has organized social media campaigns
that target foreign publics, while political‐party‐supported campaigns target domestic
Authoritarian regimes are not the only or even the best at organized social media
manipulation. The earliest reports of government involvement in nudging public opinion
involve democracies, and new innovations in political communication technologies often
come from political parties and arise during high‐profile elections.
Over time, the primary mode for organizing cyber troops has gone from involving
military units that experiment with manipulating public opinion over social media
networks to strategic communication firms that take contracts from governments for
social media campaigns.
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