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Social media used to shape opinion, crack-down on dissent
November 26, 2017, 3:10 pm

Governments around the world, both authoritarian as well as so-called ‘liberals’, are increasingly using social media outlets to crack down on dissent, promote disinformation and manipulate citizens in their countries and abroad, says a new report by US-based think-tank Freedom House.

The report found manipulation tactics in elections in at least 18 countries in the last 12 months, including the United States. The findings represent the seventh consecutive year that Freedom House has recorded a global decline in internet freedom and growing influence of government power. “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 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.

The authorities in several countries have also often shut down cellular internet service for political or security reasons, often in areas populated by ethnic and religious minorities. Governments have also restricted the posting of live video on social media platforms, particularly during demonstrations. Also, access to independent websites has been taken down by distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks.

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 names and accuses several states for having 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.

While the alleged use by Russia of social media sources to influence recent elections in the United States and other countries have come in for particular scrutiny, the United States has a long history of using both online and offline media to promote and protect its interests in other countries. What the Freedom House report underscores is that more countries are now following the lead set by the US and other ‘liberal’ nations and attempting to shape the opinions of their electorates and crack down on internal dissent.

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