Governments in 30 countries manipulated media online to silence critics, sow unrest or influence elections

The latest report on internet freedom by Freedom House finds online discourse in the United States is suffering.

It isn’t just Russia that’s spreading disinformation on Facebook, Google and Twitter in a bid to stir political unrest and silence critics around the globe.

A new report from Freedom House released Tuesday found that governments in 30 countries — not just the Kremlin, but also the regimes in Turkey, Venezuela and the Philippines — are now “mass producing their own content to distort the digital landscape in their favor.”

In Sudan, for example, the government maintains a virtual cyber army that has infiltrated Facebook, WhatsApp and other services in order to spread its leaders’ messages. In Venezuela, government forces “regularly used manipulated footage to disseminate lies about opposition protesters or the media, creating confusion” ahead of its last election.

The watchdog found that these efforts to manipulate information online — by governments or other forces — may have affected 18 countries’ elections, “damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.” That included the U.S., where Russian-sponsored trolls fueled conflict around controversial debates like immigration, gun control and gay rights.

“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz in a statement. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The conclusions came as part of Freedom House’s annual evaluation of global internet freedom, which found — once again — that government restrictions on their citizens’ internet use generally is on the rise.

Their report focused its efforts on 65 countries, studying their approach to online discussion and regulation between June 2016 and May 2017, and Freedom House awarded each government an internet-freedom score.

The lowest rating still belongs to China. Freedom House once again lamented the country’s historic, unrivaled limits on online speech, its penchant for hacking opponents and media organizations alike, and its willingness to imprison critics of Beijing’s leaders. Elsewhere, governments pursued their own new restrictions on online activity. For example, nine countries over the past year sought to block live video streaming for the first time, often to “halt real-time coverage of antigovernment demonstrations.”

In the U.S., Freedom House also sounded a note of alarm: It concluded that internet freedom in the U.S. had declined since the previous year, due in no small part to Russia’s election meddling.

Before and after Election Day, Kremlin-tied trolls had purchased ads and created profiles on Facebook, Google and Twitter, seeking to create chaos, rile up protesters and shift media coverage away from then-candidate Donald Trump. Those efforts are now the subject of scrutiny on Capitol Hill — and soul-searching in Silicon Valley — as lawmakers look to prevent Russia or another foreign power from meddling in U.S. politics ahead of the next election in 2018.

“While the online environment in the United States remained vibrant and diverse, the prevalence of disinformation and hyperpartisan content had a significant impact,” Freedom House found.

The watchdog also attributed its new skepticism about U.S. internet freedom to heightened harassment of American journalists online, not to mention efforts by the Trump administration, including a controversial — and quickly abandoned — attempt to unmask some of its prominent critics on Twitter.

Freedom House said internet freedom in the U.S. could be threatened even further as a result of the government’s ongoing attempt to undo its existing net neutrality rules. The regulations require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.

At the same time, Freedom House also offered a subtle warning to regulators — in the U.S. and elsewhere — who are considering new laws in an attempt to thwart misinformation or other online ills.

By the watchdog’s estimate, 14 countries seeking to stop malicious bots and other nefarious activities on the web introduced rules over the past year that “actually restricted internet freedom,” perhaps unwittingly. That includes Germany, which instituted a new law in June 2017 that requires the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to take down content flagged as offensive in a way that “lacks judicial oversight.”

“When trying to combat online manipulation from abroad, it is important for countries not to overreach,” said Sanja Kelly, who oversees the production of the Freedom of the Net report, in a statement.

“The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary,” Kelly continued. “Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline.”


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