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Governments in 30 countries pay 'keyboard armies' to spread propaganda, report says

14 November 2017

The annual "Freedom on the Net" report from the think tank Freedom House showed that the spread of online misinformation went far beyond Russian Federation and China to nearly half of the 65 countries studied in the report.

It also revealed that, other than the U.S., covert tactics were used in at least 17 other countries to damage citizens "ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate".

"Internet freedom improved in Georgia this year as internet penetration increased, and despite a brief blocking incident involving video-hosting platform Vimeo, the internet remained relatively free from censorship", the report reads.

For the third consecutive year, China was the world's worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.

The organization says 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.

"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, said: "Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda". The Ethiopian government totally shut down mobile networks for two months in a state of emergency during wide-scale anti-government protests.

China meanwhile has adopted a strict cyber security law that strengthened government controls over the Internet.

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The report said less than one-quarter of Internet users in the 65 countries assessed have access to the web that can be considered "free", meaning there are no major obstacles to access, onerous restrictions on content, or serious violations of user rights through unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech. According to the survey, the lowest scorer country enjoys the highest internet freedom.

Governments in 30 of these countries are using manipulation tools to distort online information, compared to 23 per cent previous year.

Three countries - Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey - were found to use armies of so-called "opinion shapers" to circulate government propaganda and counter critical views online.

And in Turkey, around 6,000 are believed to be employed by the government to fight political opponents on social media sites.

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

"When trying to combat online manipulation from overseas, it is important for countries not to overreach", Kelly said.

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Governments in 30 countries pay 'keyboard armies' to spread propaganda, report says