At least 18 nations holding elections in 2016 experienced some kind of information attacks similar to the Russian social media campaign in the U.S., according to a new report.
The annual Freedom House “Freedom on the Net” report, released Tuesday, tabulates this kind of election interference into its nation-by-nation rankings of internet freedom, under the theory that diluting authentic speech stifles legitimate debate.
In at least 16 nations, including the U.S., Colombia, Ecuador, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom, election campaigns included a substantial influx of deliberately fabricated news stories.
In other instances, the government has purchased vast armies of social media posters to hijack discussion threads.
Praising Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on social media in the run-up to the election could earn a member of his “keyboard army” $10 a day, while Turkey’s ruling party paid 6,000 “White Trolls” to manipulate conversations.
Though some countries faced external information campaigns to influence elections, as the United States did, political parties and governments waged many of the campaigns to maintain or increase power.
Freedom House warns that overreacting to external campaigns by banning or penalizing foreign websites would be worse for internet freedoms than taking no action. It suggests improving media literacy among a populace to mitigate external campaigns.
The report ranked the United States No. 6 overall in terms of internet freedom. But Freedom House reported that U.S. freedom on the internet declined since last year's rankings, both on the basis of Russian interference in the election and the Trump administration’s crackdown on internet dissenters.
Examples cited included a March instance when Customs and Border Patrol agents asked Twitter to reveal a user critical of the administration’s immigration policy and an attempt to obtain data on all visitors to a Trump protest site.
The U.S. also lost ranking for its efforts to undo net neutrality rules that prevent internet providers from offering better download speeds on some sites than others.
Though Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany and Australia all outpace the U.S. in terms of internet freedom, Freedom House lists the U.S. as having a “free” internet. A bevy of countries, including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Venezuela all ranked “Not Free.”
The brunt of factors that reduce internet freedom, according to the report, are nations filtering web access, blocking certain populations from accessing the internet, or other direct blocking of citizens from accessing an open internet.
Overall, the Freedom on the Net study deemed that internet freedoms across the world had declined since last year’s report.
Freedom on the Net relied on an international team of academics, one per country ranked, to gauge freedoms using a set formula.