Governments Undermined Elections in 18 Countries Last Year

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The US election was not a one-off: governments around the world sought to influence elections via misinformation on social media in at least 18 countries over the past year, according to the latest report from Freedom House.

The non-profit’s annual Freedom on the Net report makes for grim reading for those who fear the democratic process is being undermined by manipulation of sentiment on social platforms.

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

In some cases, as with Russia, nation states are actively undermining the democratic process in rival countries, making it difficult for voters to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.

However, in most cases it’s done internally to preserve the status quo of an authoritarian regime.

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.

Freedom House claims governments in 30 countries are using these tactics, up from 23 the previous year.

“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 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.

Some countries, like Ukraine, have even been forced to block some services after they were infiltrated by Kremlin agents.

“The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary,” Kelly warned. “Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline.”

China was the worst abuser of online freedoms of the 65 countries appraised globally, with Estonia and Iceland at the other end. Most countries saw a decline in their internet freedom score, including the US and UK, which currently sit in sixth and ninth place.

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