But they appear to be cheap. In countries that mandate campaign finance transparency, firms report billing tens of thousands of dollars for campaigns that also include traditional consulting services.
The layer of deniability frees governments to sow disinformation more aggressively, at home and abroad, than might otherwise be worth the risk. Some contractors, when caught, have claimed they acted without their client’s knowledge or only to win future business.
Platforms have stepped up efforts to root out coordinated disinformation. Analysts especially credit Facebook, which publishes detailed reports on campaigns it disrupts.
Still, some argue that social media companies also play a role in worsening the threat. Engagement-boosting algorithms and design elements, research finds, often privilege divisive and conspiratorial content.
Political norms have also shifted. A generation of populist leaders, like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, has risen in part through social media manipulation. Once in office, many institutionalize those methods as tools of governance and foreign relations.
In India, dozens of government-run Twitter accounts have shared posts from India Vs Disinformation, a website and set of social media feeds that purport to fact-check news stories on India.
India Vs Disinformation is, in reality, the product of a Canadian communications firm called Press Monitor.