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

A study of internet freedom in 65 countries found 30 governments are deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information

The way it's been covered, you might think that Russia's alleged attempt to manipulate last year's U.S. presidential election was the only time such an online propaganda campaign has ever been waged.

Ms Kelly said China and Russian Federation had pioneered widespread net controls but the techniques had now gone "global". "The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating".

Governments are increasing efforts to manipulate information on social media, a Washington-based advocacy group said Tuesday.

Freedom House warns that unlike more direct methods of censorship - such as website blocking or arrests for internet activity - the manipulation of online content is more insidious, hard to detect and ultimately more hard to combat. It focuses on developments that occurred between June 2016 and May 2017, although some more recent events are included as well.

The report assessed the internet freedoms of 65 countries and found that, in total, the governments of 30 countries had used "some form of manipulation to distort online information". 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.

The report picks out the Philippines, where the current administration has hired an army of posters to amplify support for Duterte's bloody crackdown on drug dealers; and Turkey, where 6000 netizens have apparently been recruited to do the government's bidding online. It notes that 6,000 people reportedly were employed on social media by Turkey's ruling party to counter government opposition. The US "was was troubled by a proliferation of fabricated news articles, divisive partisan vitriol, and aggressive harassment of many journalists, both during and after the presidential election campaign". For instance, Ukraine has stopped citizens from accessing Russia-based services.

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

"The first steps in this effort should include public education aimed at teaching citizens how to detect fake or misleading news and commentary. Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline", she added.

The assessment was carried out in 65 countries, which make up 87 percent of the world's internet usage - showing questionable election results go far beyond fake news in the US. In Ethiopia, the government shut down mobile networks for almost two months as part of a state of emergency declared in October 2016 amid large-scale antigovernment protests.

There are three main criteria of evaluation: obstacles to access; limits on content and violations of user rights.

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

The report showed that a record number of governments restricted mobile internet services for political or security reasons and often in areas populated by ethnic or religious minorities.

Zero point equals the most internet free country, while the 100 point is the worst indicator.

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