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Pro-government ‘keyboard armies’ employed throughout world, report finds

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At least 30 governments pay internet commentators to spread pro-government propaganda and smear their opponents with increasingly sophisticated approaches, a think tank has reported.

At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London this week, Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using misinformation to “sow discord in the West”. The Electoral Commission is investigating allegations that the Kremlin used social media to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum, while in the US, Congress and the FBI are exploring Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The lack of internet freedom and spread of misinformation online in Russia, China, North Korea and other famously oppressive dictatorships often make headlines. However, it would appear that citizens of many other countries also suffer from repressive and manipulative government control over digital information.

Freedom House is a US think tank which conducts research on democracy and freedom around the world. Its yearly report, Freedom of the Net, monitors the degree of public access to information online in a varied sample of countries.

This year, the report surveyed 65 countries – making up 87 per cent of the world’s population – and nearly half (30) were found to have governments which sponsor the spread of misinformation to bolster their power. The number of governments that Freedom House has found to be employing “keyboard armies” has risen steadily year on year.

Governments of countries in almost every continent are paying for the spread of misinformation online to influence elections, support for government, smear political opponents, repress democracy and cause division and distrust, the report says.

“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Michael J Abramowitz, Freedom House president. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The report said that fake news had been deployed online in attempts to influence elections in 18 countries, including the UK and US, and that it “played an important role”.

The increasingly sophisticated “keyboard armies” behind these repressive movements are made up of bots, sponsored commentators, “fake news” sources and trolls. The majority of work done by these groups is domestic, focused on building up the appearance of grassroots support for the government and smearing political opponents.

“Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, who led 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,” said Kelly.

Each year, Freedom House assigns each country an “internet freedom score” between 0 (most free) and 100 (least free). 32 of the 65 countries covered by the report, including the UK and US, scored worse than last year and just 13 improved their scores. Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany, Australia, the US and Japan ranked above the UK, while China, Syria and Ethiopia were judged least free.

A record number of governments, Freedom House reported, have also restricted mobile internet service for political or security reasons, notably in areas populated by oppressed minorities, such as in Tibetan areas of China and Oromo areas of Ethiopia. Other trends identified in the report include restriction of live video streaming, and physical and technical attacks against news outlets and other opposition organisations and their employees.

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