WIKILEAKS: Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation — new Oxford paper


Samantha Bradshaw, University of Oxford
Philip N. Howard, University of Oxford


Executive summary

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 politicalpartysupported 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 highprofile 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.