Manipulation of the truth is everywhere, in the East and in the West. Do not be naïve – manipulation is not confined to closed political systems like China. ‘Our’ free world champions like Facebook, Google and Twitter are suspected of doing it too, but in a more sophisticated way.

China puts brute force in shaping the public opinion on social media. China’s social media teams create about 488 million social media comments a year trying to distract fellow citizens from bad news and sensitive political debates, according to a Harvard study. China’s online propaganda workers, known as the Fifty Cent Party, are said to be paid by the government 50 Chinese cents for every social media post. This adds up to an investment of about $250 million US Dollars. That’s serious money!

Distraction is the strategy. The social media warriors avoid engaging in debates with critics and do not make fun of foreign governments. Instead, they mostly work to distract public attention away from hot topics by highlighting the positive, and cheering the state on. Changing the subject towards less controversial or more ‘positive’ topics proves to be more effective than adding fuel to the debate.

Facebook and Twitter seem to use other methods to distract the public. A whistleblower from Facebook’s social media team has revealed that the ‘news curators’ manipulate the ranking of trending topics and leave out topics that do not fit in the social media site’s political or social agenda. The whistleblower also states that the ‘news curators’ add topics to the list that are not trending at all, but that support the curator’s views. Twitter is said to do the same.

Manipulation can also materialize in search operations. Scientists even have coined a term for this: Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME). They found out that Google, being the market leader in search, has the ability to influence the outcomes of elections. For instance, by presenting positive information about the candidate that Google favors to undecided voters, Google has the upperhand. It is not said that Google misuses its capabilities to manipulate voters, but Google’s past behavior reveals a track record in manipulation. Google had to change its search algorithms after the FTC (US Federal Trade Commission) found out that search results were manipulated to favor Google’s own business or large advertisers and demote competitors.

So, is the truth dying? Not if we stay aware of the dark sides of social media and search engines. Manipulation of information is all around us, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. But we must stay vigilant of what we see and read. Stay awake!

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