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

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Governments in 30 countries manipulated information on social media in an effort to advance their agendas and suppress dissent, a US -based rights group said in its annual report on Internet freedom. In others, like Azerbaijan and Venezuela, the interference came in the form of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that disrupted internet connections and, in some cases, knocked independent media outlets offline entirely.

"The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russian Federation but has now gone global", Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz said in a statement.

The report regards China as the worst abuser of Internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.

"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating", he added.

"Internet freedom improved in Georgia this year as internet penetration increased, and despite a brief blocking incident involving video-hosting platform Vimeo, the internet remained relatively free from censorship", the report reads.

The latest Freedom on the Net report, published by Freedom House, claims that many governments are increasingly manipulating information on social media for their own political ends. The Ethiopian government totally shut down mobile networks for two months in a state of emergency during wide-scale anti-government protests.

China meanwhile has adopted a strict cyber security law that strengthened government controls over the Internet.

The report had assessed the internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide, between June 2016 and May 2017. According to findings from Freedom House, governments in no less than 30 countries are now "mass producing their own content to distort the digital landscape in their favor".

While much ado has been made of Russian interference during the 2016 United States presidential election, a new report found that governments around the world attempted to influence the outcome of elections in at least 18 elections past year.

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. Turkey meanwhile has reportedly 6,000 people enlisted by the ruling party to counter government opponents on social media.

According to the report, 14 countries taking measures to stop nefarious web activities actually ended up restricting internet freedom. Furthermore, these manipulation efforts may have affected elections taking place in 18 countries. "The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary".

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