Internet freedom is on the decline for the seventh consecutive year as governments around the world take to distorting information on social media in order to influence elections, a new report says.
The nongovernmental organization Freedom House released its annual Freedom on the Net report this week, which found that online "manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role" in elections in 18 countries, including the U.S.
The report noted Russia's influence campaign on the U.S. election, but governments often used these tactics internally.
The group described the workings of a paid "keyboard army" that supported the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte's 2016 election; "government agents" in Venezuela propagating "lies about opposition protesters" before elections there; fake news articles shared on social media before Kenya's election in August; 30,000 "fake accounts" removed from Facebook ahead of elections in France; "mobile broadband networks were reportedly disrupted" in opposition areas during an election in Zambia last year; and networks were shut off before Gambia's 2016 election.
The report examined online freedom, which it defined as "no major obstacles to access, onerous restrictions on content, or serious violations of user rights in the form of unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech." Internet freedom in 32 of the 65 countries examined declined between June 2016 and May 2017, the time period the report focuses on. It covers 87 percent of Internet users, Freedom House says. Thirteen countries improved — slightly.
The group said 30 countries "deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year."
The organization singled out China, known for its "Great Firewall" and army of Internet censors, as "the worst abuser of internet freedom for the third consecutive year." China has recently cracked down on the ability of Internet users to get around the government's blocking of undesirable content. Over the summer, users in China noticed that virtual private network software was removed from Apple's App Store there. People use VPNs to make it appear they are in a different country, allowing them to access content — like The New York Times — that China blocks.
China's censors went as far as deleting "all online references to a newly discovered species of beetle named after [President] Xi [Jinping], which the censors reportedly found offensive given the beetle's predatory nature," the report says.
Russian interference in the U.S. election, the subject of daily reports for most of the past year, played a part in a decline of Internet freedom in the U.S.
But Americans did plenty themselves.
"While the online environment in the United States remained vibrant and diverse, the prevalence of disinformation and hyperpartisan content had a significant impact," the authors say.
Also contributing to the decline of U.S. Internet freedom in the past year: Twitter sued after the Trump administration tried to force the company to reveal the identity of an anonymous online Trump critic; the government asked the Web hosting company DreamHost to hand over the IP addresses of all of the visitors to the anti-Trump protest site DisruptJ20.org; and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he intends to undo net neutrality rules.
While Russia's impact on the Internet in the U.S. has been widely reported, Freedom House noted the strict limits Russia imposes on what information flows to its own citizens:
"Bloggers who obtain more than 3,000 daily visitors must register their personal details with the Russian government and abide by the law regulating mass media. Search engines and news aggregators were banned from including stories from unregistered outlets under a new law that took effect in January 2017. Foreign social media platforms have been pressured to move their servers within the country's borders to facilitate state control, while key local platforms have been purchased by Kremlin allies."
On Wednesday, Russia's lower house of parliament approved a bill requiring foreign media in the country to register as "foreign agents." Russia's state-backed news network RT characterized it as a "mirror response" to the U.S. Justice Department forcing RT's production company to register as a "foreign agent" in the U.S., which it did Monday.
The Freedom House report also broke down the differing "disinformation tactics" used in various countries:
- Researchers identified "progovernment commentators" in 30 countries, where "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." In one example, in Sudan, the group says "cyber jihadists" in the country's intelligence service created fake social media accounts to express support for government policies and "denounce critical journalists."
- Similarly, governments and other groups are using bots, or "automated accounts on social media to manipulate online discussions," the report says. Freedom House says supporters of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto used about 75,000 "Peñabots" to "overwhelm political opposition on Twitter."
- A third tactic was hijacking social media accounts and news sites to spread fake information. In one case, hackers targeted an opposition leader in Belarus ahead of a major protest, taking over that person's Facebook and writing posts encouraging followers not to go.
- Freedom on the Net also characterized fake news on social media as a prevalent disinformation tactic. Government supporters in Iran created websites to mimic the BBC's Persian service, but instead "fill[ed] them with conspiracy theories and anti-Western propaganda." Also in Iran, hackers created mock websites of Syrian opposition leaders in "social-engineering schemes."
- The report identifies "progovernment news and propaganda" as occurring when "the online media landscape is warped by frequent bribes, politicized editorial directives, or ownership takeovers by government-affiliated entities and individuals." For example, oligarchs close to the governments of Hungary and Russia bought critical websites in order to change their editorial direction, researchers say.
In previous years, Freedom House identified specific trends in how governments are restricting Internet freedom. "In 2013, it was a rise in surveillance," NPR's Alina Selyukh wrote last year. "In 2014, governments shifted more from behind-the-scenes control to overt repression and arrests. In 2015, it was more of the same, plus a push against encryption." In 2016, she wrote, "the pressure fell increasingly on social media and messaging tools, often to quash protests or dissent."
This year, Freedom House says it's noticed governments shutting down mobile Internet networks, particularly in areas with strong opposition to a country's central government. The group also says governments have responded to live video streaming — like Facebook Live or Instagram's live video stream — by trying to block those as well.
Other trends this year included cyberattacks against news sites and opposition leaders. Even local governments without a larger backing can pull these off "against their perceived foes," the authors say, because of the "relatively low cost of cyberattack tools" for something like a distributed denial-of-service attack, which can knock a website offline.
And in some cases, what's written on the Internet can spill over into physical violence. People were murdered for what they said online in eight countries, the report says. Victims were frequently journalists or people who write about religious minority viewpoints. People have been killed in Brazil, Syria, Mexico and Pakistan each year for the past three years.
Freedom House gets a large portion of its funding from the U.S. government, but the report is "the sole responsibility of Freedom House and does not necessarily represent the views of its donors," the organization says in the report. Other funders include Google and Yahoo.
Estonia, Iceland and Canada were ranked as the most free countries for the Internet, while China, Syria and Ethiopia were the least free. Freedom House ranked the U.S. as the fifth-most free country for the Internet.