Online trolls, bots & snoopers imperil democracy


Using armies of online fans, trolls and, automated ‘bots’, the world’s authoritarians and populists are increasingly using the web to drown out opponents and swing public opinion and elections their way, a new study says.

The Freedom on the Net report, compiled annually by Freedom House, a US government-funded research group, confirms the fears of many online activists and paints a bleak portrait of how the internet is straining democracies.

The 32-page document, released earlier in November and titled The Crisis of Social Media, found that more than half of the world’s 3.8 billion web users live in countries that censor the internet and use pro-government trolls to manipulate the online realm.

Freedom House President Mike Abramowitz warned of online propaganda and disinformation spreading ahead of elections in 24 countries. The group assesses web freedom in 65 countries that host 87 percent of the world’s webusers.

“Governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” Abramowitz said in a statement. “Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Researchers found that officials had worked with celebrity yes-men, business titans and semi-autonomous “online mobs” to spread clickbait, conspiracy theories and misleading memes from “marginal echo chambers to the political mainstream”.

The report spotlights Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential election win in October 2018 was preceded by misleading news, anti-gay rumours and doctored images being spread by the right-winger’s fans via YouTube and WhatsApp, researchers said.

In Egypt, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi blocked some 34,000 websites to stifle debates about whether el-Sisi should be allowed to hold power until the end of 2030 ahead of an April referendum, the report said.

Hundreds of thousands of online trolls spread fake news to swing voters behind two main parties in April-May elections in India this year, it added. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘NaMo’ app was reportedly relaying users’ data to a private analytics firm.

The world’s two biggest economies — the United States and China — come in for special scrutiny. In the US, much like in the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power, online trolls spread “disinformation” during the November 2018 mid-term vote and during the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Meanwhile, US immigration officials are increasingly demanding access to the mobile phones and laptops of visitors and snooping on immigrants’ social media feeds, operating with “little oversight or transparency”, the report says.

China remains the “world’s worst abuser of internet freedom” — a title it has held for four consecutive years, and where a phalanx of online commentators known as the 50 Cent Army pushes government messages online.

Beijing clamped down harder on web users ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 15 April and got tighter still in the face of ongoing anti-government protests in Hong Kong, the report says.

Adrian Shahbaz, the group’s research director for technology and democracy, warned that even governments of smaller economies can now afford large-scale “advanced social media surveillance programs”.

Last month, Facebook sued NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, for using the WhatsApp messaging service to hack the phones of some 1,400 dissidents, journalists, diplomats, officials and others for their clients, understood to be governments and spy agencies.

“Once reserved for the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies, big-data spying tools are making their way around the world,” said Shahbaz. “Even in countries with considerable safeguards for fundamental freedoms, there are already reports of abuse.”

Researchers noted that officials in 47 countries, armed with such sophisticated web-snooping tools, had arrested web users between June 2018 and May 2019 for posting political, social or religious messages online.

“The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media,” said Shahbaz.

“Since these are mainly American platforms, the US must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.” (IPS)