Freedom of the Net report – Manipulating Social Media, hacking election and much more

November 14, 2017

Freedom of the Net report – Online manipulation played a crucial role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.

While cyber security experts still debate cyber attacks against 2016 Presidential Election, according to the independent watchdog Freedom House at least 18 countries had their elections hacked last year.

The group surveyed 65 nation states comprising 87 percent of internet users and observed that in at least 18 cases, foreign governments or outside bodies had tried to influence an election by restricting or interfering with internet use.

According to the organization, Governments around the world are dramatically increasing their efforts to manipulate information on social media, threatening the notion of the internet as a liberating technology, this is the message emerged from annual Freedom of the Net report.

“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.”

While in some cases the interference attempts were performed by foreign actors, in the majority of the cases they were carried out either by the local government or opposition. The watchdog reported that 30 countries have now been found to be running armies of trolls to try and influence public sentiments on specific topics.

“Venezuela, the Philippines, and Turkey were among 30 countries where governments were found to employ armies of “opinion shapers” to spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media.” states the report. “The number of governments attempting to control online discussions in this manner has risen each year since Freedom House began systematically tracking the phenomenon in 2009.”

Chined Government is the most active in this sense, it used a cyber army composed of bloggers and social media users who support its politics and discredit political opponents. Unfortunately, China isn’t the only one, in Russia, the Internet Research Agency is the “troll farm” reportedly financed by a businessman with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Unlike other methods of censorship, the online content manipulation is very difficult to detect and combat, the countering content manipulation takes time and resources.

“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,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project. “The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside.”

Freedom of the Net report

Giving a look at other data in the report, Freedom House classified only 23 percent of the internet as “free.”

Freedom of the Net Freedom House image

14 countries this year passed laws to restrict the internet use, in some cases, Governments banned the use of VPNs, 19 countries have used some kind of internet shutdown during political events.

The report also warns of physical attacks on netizens and online journalists spread globally, in 8 countries (including Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, and Syria) journalists or online commentators have been killed for their online activities.

According to the Freedom of the Net report the things will get worse in the future.

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Pierluigi Paganini

Security Affairs –  (Freedom of the Net, censorship)

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