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Unveiling Social Media Deception: Exploring the Main Methods and Means

02 Mar 2023,3:51 PM



The rapid ubiquity and proliferation of Internet-based technologies continue to revolutionize the means and approaches of content generation, transmission, and exchange across the Web, particularly by informing the exponential growth in the global adoption of social media services and applications. Social media is a collective term that refers to the wide-ranging interactive technologies that enable content creation and sharing through virtual networks and communities known as social networks (Tsikerdekis & Zeadally, 2014). According to the latest data, there was a 64 percent increase in social media users globally between the technology's earliest penetration into consumer markets in the mid-2000s and the early 2010s (Tsikerdekis & Zeadally, 2014). Twitter and Facebook alone had more than 1 billion users by the end of 2014 (Tsikerdekis & Zeadally, 2014). Unfortunately, the rise and exponential expansion of the online environment that social media establishes also creates new and significant opportunities for deception on the Internet, thereby precipitating and necessitating comprehensive research into the means and methods of social media deception. In this regard, according to the indications of the latest research, social media has a particularly significant and peculiar efficiency in facilitating and transmitting various forms of deception in online environments and their specific cyberspaces (Jones, 2022). The current discussion's overarching purpose is to investigate the most significant Internet deception mechanisms and modalities in the social media context. A comprehensive review of the available literature demonstrates that social media plays a significant role in advancing Internet-based deceptions. The four most significant social media deception means and methods are information control or censorship, disinformation and propaganda, smear campaigns, and information domination.

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Informational Controls and Censorship of Social Media

The world's increasing adoption of social media technologies and applications combined with more people's increasing reliance on social media as their primary source of information renders informational controls implemented on and through social media as one of the most effective forms of social media deception by authoritarian and other malicious actors within the Internet environment. Jones (2022, pp. 29-30) defines informational control as "the use of techniques to reduce dissent through the selective control of access to information on which a person makes decisions and formulates opinions." Theoretically, successfully controlling people's access to information can significantly influence their thoughts and, consequently, their behavior. As Jones (2022, p. 30) describes, informational controls intend to "seek to control the desire, not just the ability, to pursue a particular course of action." Therefore, authoritarian actors, such as dictatorships and authoritative governments, benefit from the postulated impact of controlling or 'dieting' people's informational access by controlling and censoring social media.

The implicated actors leverage informational controls implemented through and on social media to achieve public deception by implementing various methods, tactics, and techniques. In this regard, one common and particularly effective approach that Jones (2022) observes in the Digital Authoritarianism text is reducing or eliminating from social media all counter-narratives against narratives that may precipitate and promote anti-status quo movements. The responsible actors, in this case, target the social media users and platforms that produce such critical narratives with various tactics of coercion, co-optation, and deception (Jones, 2022). The co-optation and deception tactics leveled against the actual and potential critics of the status quo are particularly prevalent in many authoritative contexts, such as China and North Korea (Bischoff, 2022). The means most frequently utilized to perpetrate the deceptive approaches of reducing criticism against the status quo include hacking the accounts or otherwise tricking the influential social media gatekeepers into hijacking their social media platforms and utilizing them to propagate 'pro-status quo' narratives (Jones, 2022; Wu et al., 2019).

On the other hand, the co-optation technique is whereby the status quo and establishment forces provide monetary and other incentives to influential social media users to utilize their platforms to publish and transmit pro-status social media content (Jones, 2022). Thirdly, regarding coercion, the maligned actors can utilize various means, including blackmail, intimidation, torture, or even assassination. A particularly prevalent approach in China and the government and government agencies are political and social media content censorship through the "active deletion of messages published by individuals" (Bamman et al., 2012, p. 1). These means and methods of informational control on social media reduce criticism of the regime, its policies, and the overall status quo.

Multiple empirical research studies demonstrate the significant correlation between authoritative or dictatorial regime contexts and the implementation of the various co-optation, coercion, and deception techniques of social media censorship and informational controls described above. For instance, Comparitech, a reputable global information, and communications consultancy firm, conducted an international survey of the global state of Internet censorship in 2022, which addressed the focal theme of social media censorship (Bischoff, 2022). The research established that North Korea, through the efforts of its dictatorial regime, is the most oppressive country in the world in social media censorship, evidenced by the fact that the government currently implements an all-encompassing ban on social media platforms. Specifically, the North Korean government implements various coercive tactics and techniques to restrict its citizens' access to all social media platforms, including compelling the country's internet service providers to target and block all social media websites and blocking access to social media sites using autonomous system number (Bischoff, 2022). Social media censorship is not only a form of oppression but also a manifestation of social media deception because its motivating rationale is the regime's need to restrict the nation's population access to social media content that may foster anti-status quo sentiment and movement. Therefore, consistent with Jones' conceptualization of informational control (Jones, 2022), the example above illustrates how authoritative actors can utilize social media censorship to adversely control the public's desire and ability to dissent through deception. The approach deceives the public by reducing and possibly eliminating the population's exposure to new, challenging, and critical ideas that may encourage anti-status quo critical thoughts and behaviors.

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Social Media Disinformation, Misinformation, and Propaganda

Disinformation, misinformation, 'misinformation,’ and propaganda constitute another significant category of the contemporary means and methods of social media deception. According to Jones (2022, p. 31), although used interchangeably in scholarly and popular discourse "as they primarily concern both the veracity and the intention of the content being produced," they each refer to a distinct method and means of 'information warfare’ (Prier, 2020) or deception through various means, including social media. Jones’ taxonomy of the term refers to disinformation as deliberately manipulated visual, textual, or audio content (Jones, 2022; Liu et al., 2014). The research by Tsikerdekis and Zeadelly (2014) establishes that such content manipulation or deception through disinformation is particularly endemic on social media in different scales and magnitudes, beginning with the mundane and seemingly harmless efforts by individual social media users to tamper "with images to fake content such a representing that an individual traveled all around the world in one's photos by altering them and broadcasting these images using social media" (p.8). However, deception through disinformation on social media can also occur at broader and more extensive magnitudes and scopes, particularly when organized by powerful and authoritative actors with access to significant resources (Jones, 2022).

Conversely, what distinguishes misinformation from disinformation is that misinformation can be easily deemed to be factually inaccurate and is "spread unintentionally with no intent to cause harm" (Jones, 2022, p. 31); however, as the research by Tsikerdekis and Zeadally (2014) demonstrates, social media facilitates the rapid and significant spread of misinformation often resulting in the deception of its consumers, and can also be hijacked and manipulated by nefarious actors for deceptive purposes. An important example of such instances on social media that Wu et al. (2019, p.3) observe in their study is so-called “fake news,” which generally refers to “intentionally-spread misinformation in the news format” that often gets viral through social media transmission (Rubin, 2017). Malevolent information or misinformation is the third method or means that refers to the deceitful and tactically adverse broadcasting of information that is otherwise deemed truthful through various traditional and digital channels, including social media, to cause detriment or harm to another party or institution (Jones, 2022). Fourthly, social media propaganda refers to forming opinions and texts to advance particular interests with the intention of generating a specific action or public support (Jones, 2022). Propaganda through social media need not be fake or malicious but is generally deceptive because it seeks to manipulate public opinion deliberately. Wu et al. (2019) provide an alternative conceptual paradigm that categorizes misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda, under the umbrella of ‘misinformation.’ However, regardless of the particular theory, one adopts to define the four concepts, it is clear from the discussion above that they constitute four crucial modalities and means of social media deception.

Numerous real-life examples illustrate the adverse effects of social media deception through the four means detailed above and particularly numerous empirical illustrations of social media deception through disinformation. In this regard, a well-known illustrative case is that of the political disinformation campaigns which, fueled by social media's powerful information transmission capabilities, help political actors such as rival nation states to implement "intentional and coordinated" efforts "to spread false information to an audience, typically to achieve a political communication goal" (Jones, 2022). For instance, the Russian government is credibly accused of running an extensive social media disinformation campaign through viral conspiracy theories like the so-called PizzaGate (Wu et al., 2019) that spread rapidly across social media platforms and are thought to have influenced the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.

Demonization and Smear Campaign on Social Media

Another significant group of the means and methods of social media deception in contemporary society consists of using social media smear campaigns to promote division, conflict, and polarization. The social media smear campaigns use "adversarial content" to engage in hyper-partisan politics, "create a series of smaller conflicts played out across the Internet," and "inflame social tensions by exploiting and amplifying the perceived grievances of individuals, groups, and institutions" (Jones, 2022, p. 36). The approach is deceptive or intended to achieve specific objectives because it deceitfully influences social media users and the broader population to engage in actions and behaviors unnecessarily encourage social tensions (Jones, 2022). Smear campaigns on social media appeal to geopolitical rivals like the U.S. and Russia. They may seek to promote social conflict in each other's territories to influence critical decisions, such as their rivals' policies on resource allocation (Prier, 2020). For example, deceptive social media campaigns can influence a state to direct its resources toward combatting domestic rather than international issues.

The available research literature has numerous examples demonstrating the conduct and implications of international social media campaigns. For example, research and intelligence by the U.S. military demonstrate empirically that Russia has a well-funded military branch known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) "consisting of information warfare troops" who undertake a range of smear campaigns on social media against the U.S. and other allied nations, including the infamous WikiLeaks social media platform that played an arguably defining role in determining the outcome of the U.S. 2016 presidential election (Prier, 2020, p.67). More recently, an emerging body of empirical evidence increasingly suggests that the IRA was involved in how the Black Lives Matter movement played out in the U.S., including by creating “both pro- and anti-Black Lives Matter social media campaigns to sow discord and division” domestically in the U.S. (Jones, 2022, p.36). These illustrative examples demonstrate the powerful impact that social media smear campaigns can have in deceiving the masses and entire nations.

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Information Domination and Controlling the Narrative on Social Media

Social media deception is also achievable through information domination, the strategic privileging of specific messages over others, and targeting and swamping a particular social media information space with the deception agent's desired narrative. Digital technologies allow companies to establish large information databases with comprehensive consumer profiles based on their social media habits and consumption behaviors, thereby providing the fodder for such information domination, or what Jones (2022, p.37) refers to as "personalized propaganda.” This is because these data-driven capabilities provide the deception agents with a particularly effective mechanism to tailor and amplify particular deceptive messages for audiences on various social media platforms (Prier, 2020). Generally, information domination on social media enhances the success of deception by limiting the competition for contradictory information that the targeted social media users can access.

For instance, multiple real-life examples demonstrate how various disinformation and propaganda campaigns promote voter apathy within specific populations by targeting and flooding their social media platforms with disabling and disempowering narratives. A recent famous example was the British data firm Cambridge Analytica’s use of social media data and social media content against African American voters in the U.S. (Jones, 2022). In collaboration with specific political actors, the company harvested and improperly obtained data from Facebook during the U.S. 2016 general election and used it to build voter profiles (Confessore, 2018). Subsequently, the obtained social media data-informed multiple rival campaigns’ targeted deployment of various disinformation and misinformation campaigns to specific voter profiles and demographics (Jones, 2022). The deception agents particularly targeted the African American population with the so-called "democratic deterrent" social media content intended to deceitfully influence the voters' behavior by promoting apathy (Jones, 2022, p.37). Therefore, the example demonstrates how deception agents can use social media to dominate information, particularly in pursuing political objectives.


Social media provides contemporary society with revolutionary and unprecedented content generation and sharing capabilities while simultaneously creating multiple opportunities for deception. In this regard, this discussion's critical analysis of the relevant research literature and evidence demonstrates four major methods and means of social media deception in contemporary society, including information controls and censorship exemplified by the illustration of the complete social media bans in North Korea, which leverage social media deception to maintain the regime's political hegemony. The second major social media deception comprises the interrelated and intersecting tactics of disinformation, misinformation, misinformation, and propaganda, illustrated by the example of international political disinformation campaigns. Third, smear campaigns also constitute a notable method of social media deception. As exemplified by the IRA's efforts, it involves using adversarial social media narratives to stoke social tensions and overall instability. Finally, information domination is the fourth primary method and means of social media deception. It entails leveraging social media data and the related capabilities to strategically and deceitfully target and control the deception agents' chosen narratives and their targets' exposure to the narratives.


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Bamman, D., O'Connor, B., & Smith, N. (2012). Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese social media. First Monday, 17(3).

Bischoff, P. (2022, Oct. 12). Internet Censorship 2022: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions. Comparitech,

Confessore, N. (2018, April 4). Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The Scandal and the Fallout So Far. The New York Times.

Jones, O.M. (2022). Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation, and Social Media. London: Hurst & Company.

Liu, H., Han, J., & Motoda, H. (2014). Uncovering deception in social media. Social Network Analysis and Mining4(1), 1-2.

Prier, J. (2020). Commanding the trend: Social media as information warfare. In Information warfare in the age of cyber conflict (pp. 88-113). Routledge.

Rubin, V. L. (2017). Deception detection and rumor debunking for social media. In The SAGE handbook of social media research methods (p. 342). Sage.

Tsikerdekis, M., & Zeadally, S. (2014). Online deception in social media. Communications of the ACM57(9), 72-80.

Wu, L., Morstatter, F., Carley, K. M., & Liu, H. (2019). Misinformation in social media: definition, manipulation, and detection. ACM SIGKDD Explorations Newsletter21(2), 80-90.


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