Advocacy group says social media manipulation by governments on the rise

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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.

Online manipulation and disinformation tactics were used in elections of around 18 countries in the a year ago, Freedom House claims, including the USA presidential elections.

This year the group said 30 of the 65 countries it surveyed used paid commentators, trolls, bots, fake news sites and propaganda outlets to inflate popular support for their governments and manipulate elections - up from just 23 last year.

"Paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites, and propaganda outlets were among the techniques used by leaders to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves", Freedom House said in its report, which was released on November 14. Meanwhile, in Turkey, reportedly 6,000 people have been enlisted by the ruling party to counter government opponents on social media. It also notes that some countries actively blocked attempts to restrict freedom, noting Ukraine's actions against Russian-based search engines.

This was followed by Syria and then Ethiopia (where the government there shut down mobile networks for almost two months) as part of a state of emergency after large anti-government protests.

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It said the countries with the fewest government Internet restrictions were, in order, Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany, Australia and the United States.

The issue of "fake news" produced by online trolls and disseminated by automated bot accounts gained attention during last year's USA elections, with Russian influence believed to have played a deciding role in Donald Trump's victory.

"When trying to combat online manipulation from overseas, 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". And a new law "strengthened internet companies" obligation to register users under their real names and assist security agencies with investigations. Most mobile shutdowns occurred in areas populated with ethnic or religious minorities such as Tibetan areas in China and Oromo areas in Ethiopia. In eight of these countries journalists were murdered, while four countries-Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Syria-experienced the third straight year of such murders.

Of 63 countries studied, internet freedom worsened in 32 and only got better in 13, according to the latest assessment from Freedom House, a nonprofit devoted to expanding those freedoms with funding from Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Twitter, the US State Department and others. Freedom House tracks the status of freedom, democracy and human rights in the world.

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