The number of countries promoting disinformation on social media rose to its highest level during the past year, a new study has found. The report, from the pro-democracy think tank Freedom House, found manipulation tactics in elections in at least 18 countries in the last 12 months, including the United States. But while Russia (and America) have used such tactics to promote their own interests abroad, more countries are employing people to shape the opinions of their electorates and crack down on internal dissent, the report found.
The findings, which represent the seventh consecutive year that the think tank has recorded a global decline in internet freedom, identified several trends contributing to governments’ growing power. They have shut down cellular internet service for political or security reasons, often in areas populated by ethnic and religious minorities. Among the places this happened last year were Tibet and Ethiopia, the authors found.
“Governments around the world have dramatically increased their efforts to manipulate information on social media over the past year,” the authors write in their introduction. “The Chinese and Russian regimes pioneered the use of surreptitious methods to distort online discussions and suppress dissent more than a decade ago, but the practice has since gone global. Such state-led interventions present a major threat to the notion of the internet as a liberating technology.”
The use of paid, pro-government commentators has become widespread. While first noted by Freedom House in 2009, the practice has spread to 30 of the 65 countries it surveyed, up from 23 last year. “In these countries, there are credible reports that the government employs staff or pays contractors to manipulate online discussions without making the sponsored nature of the content explicit,” the report said. “Over the years, governments have found new methods of crowdsourcing manipulation to achieve a greater impact and avoid direct responsibility. As a result it can be hard to distinguish propaganda from actual grassroots nationalism, even for seasoned observers.”
The report’s authors found evidence of state-sponsored bot armies in at least 20 countries. To name one: In Mexico, 75,000 “Peñabots” were found working against the opponents of President Enrique Peña online. The bots would rally to promote new hashtags whenever anti-administration hashtags began to trend, the report said, and “poisoned” opposition hashtags by attaching them to countless irrelevant posts.
Governments have also restricted the posting of live video on Facebook, Snapchat, and other platforms, particularly during demonstrations. Belarus was among the countries that disrupted cellular connections to prevent live-streaming during protests, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the authors found that journalists are increasingly targeted by state actors. Access to independent websites have been taken down by distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. In 30 countries, citizens (including some professional journalists) faced repercussions for online speech — up from 20 countries last year. Among the incidents recorded last year: a reporter in Myanmar was murdered after posting notes on Facebook that alleged corruption, and a cartoonist in Jordan was found dead after satirizing Islam in an online comic.
Activists and members of opposition parties have faced harassment and worse, with their social media accounts disabled or secretly taken over by the government. The report says that state actors in Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Mexico, and China illegally hacked the phones and computers of their citizens. And while some citizens try to avoid surveillance by using virtual private networks, the report found that 14 countries now restrict VPN connections in some form.
For the third year in a row, China was found to be the worst abuser of internet freedom. Among other measures, the country instituted a cyber-security law requiring foreign companies to store their data on Chinese users within China. Apple, Airbnb, Evernote, LinkedIn, and Uber are all complying with the law, the report said. Separately, dissidents who posted articles criticizing the government were sentenced to up to 11 years in prison.
The United States also saw a decline in internet freedom, according to the report. The authors noted that US Customs and Border Protection agents asked Twitter to disclose the name of user who criticized President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, which Twitter successfully fought in court. The administration also tried to force web hosting company DreamHost to reveal the internet protocol addresses of all visitors to a website that organized inauguration protests. The Federal Communications Commission has also introduced a plan to eliminate net neutrality provisions.
The report studied internet freedom in 65 countries, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users. It covers developments between June 2016 and May 2017, and is the product of 70 researchers, nearly all of whom are based in the countries they reported on, the authors said.