More govern­ments ma­nip­u­late me­dia with ‘bots,’ trolls

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FEATURES & ANALYSIS - By Rob Lever

WASH­ING­TON: More govern­ments are fol­low­ing the lead of Rus­sia and China by ma­nip­u­lat­ing so­cial me­dia and sup­press­ing dis­sent on­line in a grave threat to democ­racy, a hu­man rights watch­dog said Tues­day.

A study of in­ter­net free­dom in 65 coun­tries found 30 govern­ments are de­ploy­ing some form of ma­nip­u­la­tion to dis­tort on­line in­for­ma­tion, up from 23 the pre­vi­ous year.

These ef­forts in­cluded paid com­men­ta­tors, trolls, “bots” – the name given to au­to­mated ac­counts – false news sites and pro­pa­ganda out­lets, ac­cord­ing to the 2017 “Free­dom on the Net” re­port by hu­man rights group Free­dom House.

The re­port said on­line ma­nip­u­la­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion tac­tics played an im­por­tant role in elec­tions in at least 18 coun­tries over the past year, in­clud­ing the United States.

“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 Abramowitz, pres­i­dent of Free­dom House.

“The ef­fects of these rapidly spread­ing tech­niques on democ­racy and civic ac­tivism are po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing,” he added.

Sanja Kelly, di­rec­tor of the Free­dom on the Net project, ex­plained such ma­nip­u­la­tion is of­ten hard to de­tect, and “more dif­fi­cult to com­bat than other types of cen­sor­ship, such as web­site block­ing.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion said 2017 marked a sev­enth con­sec­u­tive year of over­all de­cline in in­ter­net free­dom, as a re­sult of these and other ef­forts to fil­ter and cen­sor in­for­ma­tion on­line.

Free­dom House said China was the world’s worst abuser of in­ter­net free­dom for a third straight year, due to stepped-up on­line cen­sor­ship, a new law crack­ing down on anonymity on­line and the im­pris­on­ment of dis­si­dents us­ing the web.

Other coun­tries also in­creased their ef­forts to cen­sor and ma­nip­u­late in­for­ma­tion, the re­port said.

This in­cluded a “key­board army” of peo­ple em­ployed and paid $10 a day by the Philippine gov­ern­ment to am­plify the im­pres­sion of wide­spread sup­port of a bru­tal drugs crack­down, and Tur­key’s use of an es­ti­mated 6,000 peo­ple to counter gov­ern­ment op­po­nents on so­cial me­dia.

Mean­while, as Rus­sia sought to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion to in­flu­ence elec­tions in the U.S. and Europe, the Krem­lin also tight­ened its in­ter­nal con­trols, the re­port said.

Blog­gers who at­tract more than 3,000 daily vis­i­tors must regis­ter their per­sonal de­tails with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and abide by the law reg­u­lat­ing mass me­dia – while search en­gines and news ag­gre­ga­tors are banned from in­clud­ing sto­ries from un­reg­is­tered out­lets.

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

In one such ex­am­ple, Ukraine blocked Rus­sia-based ser­vices, in­clud­ing the coun­try’s most widely used so­cial net­work and search en­gine, in an ef­fort to crack down on pro-Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda.

“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.”

Free­dom House ex­pressed con­cern over grow­ing re­stric­tions on VPNs – vir­tual pri­vate net­works which al­low cir­cum­ven­tion of cen­sors – which are now in place in 14 coun­tries.

It said in­ter­net free­dom also took a hit in United States in the past year.

“While the on­line en­vi­ron­ment in the United States re­mained vi­brant and di­verse, the preva­lence of dis­in­for­ma­tion and hy­per­par­ti­san con­tent had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact,” the re­port said.

“Jour­nal­ists who chal­lenge Don­ald Trump’s po­si­tions have faced egre­gious on­line ha­rass­ment.”

The re­port found that more govern­ments are fol­low­ing the lead of Rus­sia in China in curb­ing in­ter­net free­doms.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Lebanon

© PressReader. All rights reserved.