Social media is a growing threat to internet freedom and democracy, Freedom House warns. Every year, the independent watchdog organization and think tank conducts a thorough study of internet freedom around the globe. For the ninth year in a row, internet freedom has declined and social media is said to be to blame.
Interference With Democratic Processes
The report’s authors cite two main reasons for the decline, both having to do with social media. Firstly, social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube make it possible to interfere with democratic processes. In essence, social media offers the possibility of enhancing free speech, giving a voice to millions. The networks are seen as platforms for social and professional engagement.
But social media has also proven to be an extremely useful and inexpensive tool for citizens and politicians alike to spread fake news using fraudulent or automated accounts. Of course, content is monitored and can be removed. However, with millions of users across the social media landscape, every single status update, photo or comment cannot be completely controlled.
“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “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.”
The study found that political leaders employed individuals to secretively shape online opinions in 38 of the 65 countries studied — a new high.
Increase in Government Surveillance
The second reason identified by the authors is a worrying increase in government surveillance and data mining. Social Media Monitoring Software (SMMS) and artificial intelligence algorithms can be used to secretly monitor, collect, and analyze massive amounts of social media data, at low cost.
This has a couple of advantages: internet surveillance helps to find threats and serves national security purposes. It may also help to avoid crimes and save lives. However, any form of government monitoring of social media poses significant risks to users’ privacy, freedom of expression and human rights.
“While authorities in the past typically justified the use of these tools with the need to combat serious crimes, law enforcement and other agencies are increasingly repurposing them for more questionable practices,” the report states. And even more worrying: “Repressive regimes, elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions, and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control.”
Freedom House has found evidence of advanced social media surveillance programs in at least 40 of the 65 countries analyzed. That means 89% of internet users —or nearly 3 billion people— are being monitored. A record high of 47 countries have arrested users for voicing political, social, or religious opinions. Individuals have endured physical violence in retribution for their online activities in at least 31 of the countries studied.
No Time to Waste
In the near future, tools like artificial intelligence, advanced biometrics and 5G will present new opportunities, but are also likely to make the situation worse. “Big-data spying tools are making their way around the world,” said Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “Advances in AI are driving a booming, unregulated market for social media surveillance. Even in countries with considerable safeguards for fundamental freedoms, there are already reports of abuse.”
Freedom House recommends increased transparency and oversight of these platforms in order to stop the situation from getting worse. “Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today,” the report concludes.
Freedom on the Net is a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users. It tracks improvements and declines in internet freedom conditions each year and also provides ways in which policymakers and the private sector can help safeguard internet freedoms. The countries included in the study have been selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types. In-depth reports on each country can be found at freedomonthenet.org.