Think of a country that stifles internet freedom. You might first jump to the oppressive regimes of North Korea, China, or Cuba, where internet access is either forbidden or radically restricted. But in fact, according to a recent study by the non-profit Freedom House, the principles of internet freedom are under attack worldwide—including in the United States. And it’s only getting worse.
Overt government restrictions, after all, aren’t the only way to impede internet freedom. As fake news and propaganda flourish online, and automated bot accounts bloom on social media, the manipulation and distortion of information serves as its own kind of censorship.
The crisis is global. Freedom House based its findings on an annual study of 65 countries, in which the group’s researchers collect data on factors like ready access to the internet in that country, limits on content, intentional manipulation of online conversations, and the treatment of bloggers and content creators, among other details. Researchers then score each country based on those metrics. In 2017, it found that nearly half of the 65 countries experienced a decline since June of 2016, while just 13 made gains. It was the seventh consecutive year in which internet freedom has eroded since Freedom House began studying this trend in 2011.
That means that internet freedom has long experienced a global decline. But according to Adrian Shahbaz, a Freedom House research manager, the unprecedented rise of state-sponsored manipulation and election meddling online was unique to 2017, and may prove much harder to fix than other ills. “Manipulation is much more difficult to detect and combat than other types of censorship because of how dispersed it is, and the sheer amount of people engaged in it,” he says.
Comparatively speaking, US citizens still have it good. The United States remains one of just 16 countries described in the report as “free.” But that freedom faces increasing threats, largely due to the metastatic spread of fake news during the 2016 presidential election. Major platforms like Facebook and Twitter do take a hands-off approach to what people are allowed to say online. But the report contends that phony stories promoted by bot armies and fake accounts end up silencing real people who might otherwise contribute to online conversation.
“Internet users continue to exercise self-censorship due to concerns of government surveillance as well as online harassment by other internet users,” the report reads.
‘Manipulation is much more difficult to detect and combat than other types of censorship because of how dispersed it is, and the sheer amount of people engaged in it.’
Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House
Targeted disinformation campaigns like those Russia leveled against the US are nothing new, of course. But in 2017, it “took on an accelerated and improbably successful form,” says Peter Micek, who leads the policy team at the digital rights advocacy group Access Now. “Colleagues in other parts of the world are quite familiar with disinformation campaigns on and offline, but the US was unprepared for this sort of information-based attack.”
Even as fake news spread, legitimate journalists were increasingly under attack in the US and abroad. Those offensives target more than just credibility. A 2016 report by the Anti-Defamation League found that journalists have recently faced a barrage of antisemitic rhetoric and death threats. And, of course, President Trump has repeatedly used his own Twitter account to harangue the free press.
He has suggested challenging NBC’s broadcasting license.
He called for a boycott of CNN.
And in July, he shared a GIF that had been edited to make it look like he was beating up CNN.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, made a series of policy decisions that, Freedom House says, further threatened the freedom of political dissent on the internet. As the report notes, earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security demanded Twitter hand over information on the person behind the @ALT_uscis account, a satirical feed that mimicked the United States Customs and Immigration Service. Twitter filed a lawsuit to protect the user’s privacy, eventually compelling DHS to drop their request.
Perhaps more troubling over the long-term, though, is Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai’s move to overturn net neutrality protections in the United States. Enabling internet service providers to create fast lanes for preferred content, the report argues, will weaken the public’s access to an open, free internet.
‘The US was unprepared for this sort of information-based attack.’
Peter Micek, Access Now
As startling as this downward spiral may be for the country that invented the internet as we know it, though, the US still ranks sixth in internet freedom around the world, behind only Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany, and Australia. Estonia, in particular, tops the list for its commitment to ensuring internet access to nearly all of its citizens, and for establishing strict privacy protections around Estonian citizens’ data. China takes the bottom spot on the list, for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, Freedom House detected a troubling trend in a slew of countries, including Venezuela, Turkey, and the Philippines, in which the government employs so-called “opinion shapers,” who strategically disseminate pro-government propaganda.
“We’ve never seen these manipulation tactics become as widespread as they are now,” Shahbaz says. One reason for that, he explains, is that governments learned a powerful lesson during upheavals like the Arab Spring. “What we’re seeing is governments pushback now that they’ve understood the power of social media,” he says.
Such orchestrated attempts by the government to shape public discourse may not have hit the United States yet. But, as the report notes, far-right media organizations like Breitbart, which Freedom House describes as the “center of a hyperpartisan right-wing media network,” are beginning to come frighteningly close. Ironically, it’s the very existence of the free and open internet that allows these far-right, selectively truthful outlets to exist. And yet, by willingly abusing that ability, these new media organizations—along with the trolls and bot makers—steadliy undermine that freedom, day after day.
So what can be done about this precipitous decline? Ironically, both Shahbaz and Micek say the answer may lie in the same tools that created these problems. “The high levels of disinformation should not blind us to the fact that the internet has been wildly successful in spreading information at a scale never seen before,” Micek says.
Shahbaz points to countries like Saudi Arabia where, even though people have been consistently punished for badmouthing the government on social media, they’ve also used digital activism to effect real change in the country. That activism was influential, for instance, in compelling the Saudi government to allow women access to government citizens without a male guardian’s consent.
“Even in the most repressive places, social media can be channeled to hold government accountable,” Shahbaz says. “When that wave is insurmountable, then the government is forced to listen to its people.”