State-led Social Media Manipulation: Undermining Democracy in the Digital Sphere

Freedom of the Net (FOTN) is an ongoing project by Freedom House that annually publishes a cutting-edge analysis of internet freedom around the globe. The newest edition, Freedom of the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy, reports that in the past year state-led efforts to clandestinely distort information on the internet have increased dramatically. FOTN not only assesses cyber restrictions, manipulations, and disinformation tactics currently used by governments across the world, but also ranks and compares each country side by side. The analysis includes a table outlining individual nation’s scores as well as infographics highlighting the key internet controls effecting each country. Key findings of their extensive research revealed:

  • Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including theUnited States.
  • Disinformation tactics contributed to a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, as did a rise in disruptions to mobile internet service and increases in physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media.
  • A record number of governments have restricted mobile internet service for political or security reasons, often in areas populated by ethnic or religious minorities.
  • For the third consecutive year,China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and

Government control and censorship of the digital sphere challenges the concept of the internet as a liberating technology. FOTN 2017 cautions, “In the absence of a comprehensive campaign to deal with this threat, manipulation and disinformation techniques could enable modern authoritarian regimes to expand their power and influence while permanently eroding user confidence in online media and the internet as a whole”. More information about the report and a full explanation of the methodology can be found here or at the Homeland Security Digital Library (some resources may require login).