Your government is probably manipulating you on social media


China is the "worst abuser of internet freedom" for the third year in a row, and got worse with a crackdown before a meeting to begin Xi Jinping's second term as general secretary.

"News reports citing individuals involved said the commenters, which they characterized as part of a 'keyboard army, ' could earn at least PHP500 (US$10) a day operating fake social media accounts supporting President Rodrigo Duterte or attacking his detractors", according to Freedom on the Net 2017, an annual country-by-country assessment of online freedom released by Freedom House.

Russia, which ranked 15th-worst, saw a decline in Internet freedom bolstered by the "hypocritical link between state propaganda and legal restrictions on the media", while countries like Belarus, which ranked 18th-worst, disrupted mobile connectivity to prevent live-streamed images from reaching mass audiences, the report said.

"Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda", said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project.

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.

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

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

Currently, the two countries most known for restricting internet freedom are China and Russian Federation, where the government has notable control over what citizens access and news they consume.

"The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary", Kelly warned.

The report looked at the internet freedom of 65 countries, covering 87 per cent of internet users, and focused on developments between June 2016 and May 2017. "The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating".

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"In addition, democratic societies must strengthen regulations to ensure that political advertising is at least as transparent online as it is offline".

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

Used alongside more overt technical controls such as firewalls, content filters and blocks on technical tools such as virtual private networks, the manipulation of social media had become a key tool for repressive regimes, it said.

Physical attacks against netizens and online journalists expanded dramatically: The number of countries that featured physical reprisals for online speech increased by 50 percent over the past year-from 20 to 30 of the countries assessed. The most notable declines were documented in Ukraine, Egypt, and Turkey.

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