New Developments in the Malicious Use of Social Media

social media on smartphonesThe NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence has released a report on the “Trends and Developments in the Malicious Use of Social Media“. Social media platforms are a constant source of research and exploitation for malicious actors, as they work to create influence and wage information warfare within target audiences. According to the report, there are currently seven major trends in the malicious use of social media:



  1. Impersonation – Impersonation is defined as “pretending to be another person for the purpose of entertainment or fraud”. Malicious actors may change the names of existing websites and domains to create a source of fake news. This exploits public trust and promotes disinformation.
  2. Social Engineering Attacks – Human cognitive biases are being exploited to affect the perception of targeted population. This process exerts significant influence.
  3. Russian Influence Operations – Information influence operations have become another tool, similar to espionage and irregular forces, which actors may use to negatively affect democratic societies.
  4. Disinformation Incited Violence – A case study from India shows how misinformation and rumors on WhatsApp resulted in the lynching and death of several presumed kidnappers.
  5. Disinformation in Elections – From the use of videos, altered videos, and inorganic behavior, social media platforms have been actively suppressing hate speech and disinformation  in the wake of recent election interference from extremists and bots in Moldova, Mexico, and Brazil. Methods for influence operations are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and the report notes that, “not only are bots becoming increasingly similar to people, but people are also becoming more similar to bots.”
  6. Russian Disinformation and The European Union – Even though Russian information operations seem to be based on trial and error, this contributes to the development of more sophisticated methods. There is an increasing concern about Russia’s ability and motivation to “hijack international discussions regarding disinformation and ‘Fake News’ by taking the lead and setting the agenda.”
  7. Bots, Trolls, and In-Between Things – From the report, “Bots and trolls are used to amplify certain narratives, manipulate the information environment, and make certain views or political movements seems more popular than they are – an effective way of silencing dissidents while creating social acceptance for the promoted narrative. The same methods are also used to destabilise public discourse, undermine cohesion, and fuel chaos, making it more difficult for people to evaluate what is true and false.”

In an environment where information and disinformation are constantly spread and absorbed on the same platforms, vulnerabilities are plentiful. “The malicious use of social media has developed into a flourishing economy and there are too few obstacles standing in the way of this malicious practice.”

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