Governments in 30 countries manipulated information on social media in an effort to advance their agendas and suppress dissent, a USA -based rights group said in its annual report on Internet freedom. According to Freedom House, internet freedom in the United States has now declined since the previous year.
Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project, explained such manipulation is often hard to detect, and "more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking".
Such tactics are also being used more generally by governments to inflate their own popularity, with paid commentators, trolls, bots, fake news sites and propaganda outlets all common tactics, according to the report.
Russia, which ranked 15th-worst, saw a decline in Internet freedom bolstered by the "hypocritical link between state propaganda and legal restrictions on the media", while countries like Belarus, which ranked 18th-worst, disrupted mobile connectivity to prevent live-streamed images from reaching mass audiences, the report said.
The report picks out the Philippines, where the current administration has hired an army of posters to amplify support for Duterte's bloody crackdown on drug dealers; and Turkey, where 6000 netizens have apparently been recruited to do the government's bidding online. Ukrainian authorities, for example, blocked Russia-based services, including the country's most widely used social network and search engine, after Russian agents flooded social media with fabricated stories advancing the Kremlin's narrative.
Freedom House is a US-based, United States government-funded non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights.
The least free countries in the index are China, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran and Cuba. It notes that 6,000 people reportedly were employed on social media by Turkey's ruling party to counter government opposition. According to the report, 14 countries taking measures to stop nefarious web activities actually ended up restricting internet freedom. The Ethiopian government totally shut down mobile networks for two months in a state of emergency during wide-scale anti-government protests.
"When trying to combat online manipulation from overseas, it is important for countries not to overreach", Kelly said. "The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary".
Voters in 18 nations were influenced by online trolls, propaganda and disinformation campaigns originating from different sources in the previous year, according to a new study. "Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline".
Less than 25 percent of the world has access to what is understood as "free internet", meaning there are no restrictions or limitations on what users can see or do.