Work by Oxford researchers to reveal the extent of disinformation being shared online has been recognised with a top democracy award.

The Oxford Internet Institute's Project on Computational Propaganda has received this year's National Democratic Institute (NDI) W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award, presented last night.

The Washington DC-based NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organisation that works to support democratic institutions and practices around the world. Its annual award recognises individuals or groups that have shown a 'deep and abiding commitment to democracy and human rights'.

Oxford's Project on Computational Propaganda, which carries out research into how social media is being used to manipulate public opinion and influence elections worldwide, is one of three organisations to receive the award this year, along with overseas groups and Rappler. Past recipients include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former US President Bill Clinton.

This year's award focuses on organisations working 'on the front lines of fighting the global challenge of disinformation and false news'.

Professor Philip Howard, Principal Investigator at the Project on Computational Propaganda, Oxford Internet Institute, said: 'Our team broke the story that bots and junk news were being used to manipulate voters in systematic ways in countries around the world. We started off studying these things in authoritarian regimes, but when Brexit and the US election happened we were ahead of the curve in being able to identify how social media is used by political parties and governments around the world.

'At this point we've done deep dives into nine countries, a dozen memos on specific elections, and comparative studies of 30 countries. It is a truly global problem and it is running public life into the ground.

'Social media also has to be part of the solution, so we're actively looking for ways to improve political conversations.'

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Project on Computational Propaganda, said: '2016 has marked the year in which the rapid spread of false information online has emerged as a problem of global scale. Misinformation, fake news and other forms of polarising content are not a fringe problem, but occur in the political mainstream.

'Our research found that misinformation has been shared ubiquitously during elections in the US, the UK, France and Germany over the past year. The US is an especially worrying case, with social media users sharing equal amounts of information and misinformation during the elections.'

In its statement on this year's award, the NDI said the work being done to counter disinformation in politics is 'critical to the future of democracy'. It added: 'Disinformation in politics – particularly elections – represents a critical threat to the US, to our allies and to democracy itself. The global reach of social media platforms, coupled with the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, has provided a powerful suite of new tools that are increasingly used by autocratic regimes seeking to control the information space.'

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council, which funds the Project on Computational Propaganda, said: 'The European Research Council congratulates Professor Phil Howard for having his work recognised by a prestigious award. The ground-breaking potential of his research on computational propaganda was the reason why the ERC funded his project substantially in 2014.'