Democracy in the free world is being challenged inside and out.
Voting in elections in at least 18 different countries may have been hacked or influenced by online disinformation campaigns and other forms of manipulation.
A report by Freedom House found that citizens’ freedom to vote is being attacked by outside influences as well as their own governments.
‘The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating’
– FREEDOM HOUSE
It found that online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the US.
Disinformation tactics contributed to the seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom as did a rise in disruption to mobile internet service, and increases in physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media.
China was labelled the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.
The report showed that a record number of governments restricted mobile internet services for political or security reasons, often in areas populated by ethnic or religious minorities.
A total of 30 governments, including Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey, were found to be actively engaged in using social media to stifle dissent.
Fake news and bots are the weapons employed against freedom
The report found that the use of fake news, automated bot accounts and other manipulation methods gained particular attention in the US.
‘Tech companies should do their part by re-examining the algorithms behind news curation and more proactively disabling bots and fake accounts that are used for antidemocratic ends’
– FREEDOM HOUSE
“While the country’s online environment remained generally free, it was troubled by a proliferation of fabricated news articles, divisive partisan vitriol and aggressive harassment of many journalists, both during and after the presidential election campaign,” the report said.
“Russia’s online efforts to influence the American election have been well documented, but the United States was hardly alone in this respect.
“Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate. Although some governments sought to support their interests and expand their influence abroad – as with Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe – in most cases, they used these methods inside their own borders to maintain their hold on power.”
Freedom House warns that unlike more direct methods of censorship, such as website blocking or arrests for internet activity, the manipulation of online content is more insidious, difficult to detect and ultimately more difficult to combat.
“The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating. 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. And, by bolstering the false perception that most citizens stand with them, authorities are able to justify crackdowns on the political opposition and advance antidemocratic changes to laws and institutions without a proper debate.
“Worryingly, state-sponsored manipulation on social media is often coupled with broader restrictions on the news media that prevent access to objective reporting and render societies more susceptible to disinformation,” Freedom House warned.
What should be done?
Freedom House said that successfully countering content manipulation and restoring trust in social media without undermining internet and media freedom will take time, resources and creativity.
“The first steps in this effort should include public education aimed at teaching citizens how to detect fake or misleading news and commentary.
“In addition, democratic societies must strengthen regulations to ensure that political advertising is at least as transparent online as it is offline. And tech companies should do their part by re-examining the algorithms behind news curation and more proactively disabling bots and fake accounts that are used for antidemocratic ends,” Freedom House said.