Advocacy group says social media manipulation by governments on the rise

Olive Hawkins
November 14, 2017

Internet watchdog Freedom House said Tuesday (14 November) that social media had become a key battleground where paid trolls, Twitter bots and fake news websites now roam freely.

The non-profit's annual Freedom on the Net report makes for grim reading for those who fear the democratic process is being undermined by manipulation of sentiment on social platforms.

"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating."

WASHINGTON―More governments are following the lead of Russian Federation and China by manipulating social media and suppressing dissent online in a grave threat to democracy, a human rights watchdog said Tuesday.

Their Freedom of the Net 2017 report shows that in addition to Russia, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Turkey were major players in trying to influence opinion online to affect elections.

Internet freedom has declined for a seventh consecutive year, and there's also been a rise in disruption in mobile internet service and technical attacks against human rights organisations.

"The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside", Kelly said.

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Ultimately, for the third consecutive year, Freedom House declared that China had been crowned the world's worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.

Overall 32 of the 65 countries in the report have seen their internet freedom deteriorate over the past year, most notably in Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey.

Governments in 30 of these countries are using manipulation tools to distort online information, compared to 23 per cent past year.

This included a "keyboard army" of people employed and paid $10 a day by the Philippine government to amplify the impression of widespread support of a brutal drugs crackdown, and Turkey's use of an estimated 6,000 people to counter government opponents on social media. "Not only is this manipulation hard to detect, it is more hard to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it's dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it".

Georgia received 24 points, which means the country has a status of a free country in terms of internet.

"When trying to combat online manipulation from overseas, it is important for countries not to overreach", Kelly said. "Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline".

It said the countries with the fewest government Internet restrictions were, in order, Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany, Australia and the United States.

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