Governments worldwide are increasing efforts to manipulate information on social media, undermining democracy and creating an overall decline in Internet freedom, according to Freedom House.
In its annual assessment of online freedom called Freedom On The Net 2017, released on November 14, the human rights group said online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an "important role" in elections in at least 18 countries in the past year, including Russia's influencing of the electoral process in the United States.
The report said less than one-quarter of Internet users in the 65 countries assessed have access to the web that can be considered "free," meaning there are no major obstacles to access, onerous restrictions on content, or serious violations of user rights through unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech.
"The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global," U.S.-based Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz said in a statement accompanying the 44-page report.
"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating," he added.
China was the worst offender among the 65 nations assessed, followed by Ethiopia and Syria.
Freedom House said that Internet freedom improved in Iran and Uzbekistan, but those countries still had the fourth- and sixth-worst scores respectively.
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.
"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.
"Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it's dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it. The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside," Kelly said.
While most governments targeted local public opinion, the report says Russia's campaign to influence the November 2016 U.S. presidential election was a prime example of efforts that had a cross-border impact.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities, the report said, blocked Russia-based services, including the country's most widely used social network and search engine, after Russian agents flooded social media with fabricated stories advancing the Kremlin's narrative.
"Governments in a total of 30 countries deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year," the report said.
"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," it added.
Iceland, Estonia, and Canada scored the highest in terms of Internet freedom, while the United States placed fifth.
Fake news and the "aggressive trolling" of journalists both during and after the presidential election contributed to a score decline in the United States' otherwise generally free environment, the report said.