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Governments Accused Of Social Media Manipulation

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Grim picture…social media is being manipulated, mobile connectivity is being censored, and attacks against journalists is on the rise

A new report has painted a fairly grim picture of the growing use of the Internet and technology to erode freedoms and clamp down on dissent.

The report, entitled ‘Freedom on the Net 2017‘ was written by US-based Freedom House, an independent watchdog dedicated to the “expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.”

It reported that certain governments around the world are “dramatically increasing their efforts to manipulate information on social media.” It comes as Russia in particular is at the centre of a fierce row in the United States over its alleged interference in the 2016 Presidential election.

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Social Manipulation

One of the key findings in this year’s report is that “online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.”

This manipulation and disinformation had damaged citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate, the report said.

“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,” said the report. “Such state-led interventions present a major threat to the notion of the internet as a liberating technology.”

And it noted that this is now the seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom.

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

“Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project. “Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult 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.”

“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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Naughty Step

The report also found that there had been a rise in the number of disruptions to mobile internet service, and increases in both physical and cyber attacks on human rights defenders and independent media outlets.

 

The report also named and shamed the countries involved in suppressing freedoms, and perhaps unsurprisingly, found that China (for the third consecutive year) was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom.

This was followed by Syria and then Ethiopia (where the government there shut down mobile networks for nearly two months) as part of a state of emergency after large anti-government protests.

China meanwhile has adopted a strict cyber security law that strengthened government controls over the Internet.

It has also severely cracked down on the use of VPNs in the last year.

Internet Freedom

The report had assessed the internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide, between June 2016 and May 2017.

Less than one-quarter of the world’s internet users reside in countries where the internet is designated as free.

The report found that governments in a total of 30 countries deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year. Government techniques include the use of paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites, and propaganda outlets to inflate their support and essentially endorse themselves.

The report cited the Philippines, where members of a “keyboard army” are tasked with amplifying the impression of widespread support of the government’s brutal crackdown on the drug trade. Turkey meanwhile has reportedly 6,000 people enlisted by the ruling party to counter government opponents on social media.

The report also found that governments in at least 14 countries actually restricted internet freedom in a bid to address content manipulation.

“When trying to combat online manipulation from abroad, 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. Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline.”

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