Social media enables activist movements to attract attention. Regimes around the world have improved the model, however, efficiently drowning out dissent. Authoritarian regimes are leveraging social media platforms to influence the opinions of domestic and foreign populations. They deploy social media to disseminate official propaganda, monitor and mitigate dissent, and further convince and evangelize their base. Through these regimes, tools of freedom of speech and democracy were transformed into instruments of repression. For authoritarian states, censorship is an essential aspect of their security apparatus; however, overt censorship incites rebellion. By weaponizing social media, controversial regimes can poison open communication networks, psychologically target specific demographics using metadata, and devalue democratic platforms. For instance, in Egypt, Twitter and Facebook helped topple Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Since then, the military-led government has tracked, silenced, and, in some cases, killed its opponents. Silicon Valley startup Procera Networks signed a contract with the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to extract usernames and passwords from unencrypted websites. This information could be used for widespread surveillance, for precise psychographic profiling, or to silence political opponents and dissidents.

Iran controls the online discourse and browsing options of its citizens through monitoring and Iran-only search engines like Yooz. Yooz is specifically designed to counter Western search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing. It is designed to search and catalog Iran-based and Persian-language websites, as well as to help Iran circumvent U.S.-led economic sanctions and “grant the academic world the access to the Persian cyberspace.” Iranians filter material and websites that the government finds objectionable, such as free speech activists, and during sensitive times, such as national elections, authorities slow internet traffic significantly. Iranian officials have also discussed the creation of a “Halal Internet” – essentially a giant Iran Intranet – which would separate Iranian cyberspace from the rest of the world. Analysts are skeptical of the claim, arguing instead that Iranian officials are more likely constructing a “Filternet” that is no different from the global Web, except that it is heavily censored and filtered. Over the past few years, Iran has doubled the budget of the ICT, and it has begun more aggressively blocking popular websites and apps, such as Instagram and WhatsApp. In response, many Iranians have become proficient at circumvention technologies, such as Tor or VPNs, to conceal their activity and bypass the filters[47].

Likewise, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte allegedly employs a “keyboard army” of social media trolls to generate fake news and adulatory propaganda and attack his critics. When he decided to run for president in November 2015, he assembled a social media army with a budget of $200,000 to flood social media with pro-Duterte comments from prominent online voices, popularized hashtags, and attacks against critics. Despite his opponents vastly outspending his campaign, Duterte gained the presidency with nearly 40 percent of the vote. Afterward, his spokesperson issued a “warm thanks” to Duterte’s 14 million social media “volunteers.” Since his election, nearly 4,000 people have been killed by government forces under Duterte’s war on drugs. To mitigate condemnations from human rights groups, his regime has employed a cadre of personnel and bots to tweet about Duterte constantly. An estimated 20 percent of all mentions of Duterte on Facebook by Filipino users and 20 percent of all mentions of Duterte on Twitter come from bot accounts. Duterte’s social media strategy weaponizes the Philippines youth population. His trolls deliver a steady stream of pro-Duterte propaganda to the estimated 50 million young residents who use social media daily. Anyone critical of the president is digitally abused, publicly shamed, or otherwise silenced. It is believed that his “keyboard army” consists of paid and unpaid users numbering in the hundreds of thousands. At all hours of day and night, they cycle through a host of topics, ranging from corruption to drug abuse to U.S. interference, and post praise of Duterte and links to hyper-partisan sites. The accounts appear as unique individuals and do not share other memes or discuss other topics [47].

The Philippines is an ideal environment for a successful influence operation, because the median age in the country is 23 years old and nearly half of the 103 million population are active social media users. Access to Facebook is free with all smartphones, while visits to other sites, such as newspapers, incur data charges; consequently, many citizens solely rely on social media for virtually all of their news and information. Without other information streams to act as a counterbalance, the population is exponentially more susceptible to viral memes, propaganda, disinformation, and fake news. Duterte has exploited the digital landscape to further his regime. Online trolls can reportedly earn up to $2,000 per month creating fake social media accounts and then using the bots to flood their communities with pro-Duterte propaganda. As a result, Duterte has maintained an approval rating of more than 80 percent [47].

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