This article was published on November 14, 2017

US isn’t the only country with an election interference problem

US isn’t the only country with an election interference problem
Inés Casserly
Story by

Inés Casserly

Voters in 18 nations were influenced by online trolls, propaganda and disinformation campaigns originating from different sources in the last year, according to a new study.

According to research carried out by Freedom House, democratic integrity has only deteriorated in the past seven years, and as of June 2016 the countries most affected were Ukraine, Egypt, and Turkey. The assessment was carried out in 65 countries, which make up 87 percent of the world’s internet usage — showing questionable election results go far beyond fake news in the US.

This means that voters were influenced by erroneous information regarding opposing candidates as well as bots and trolls. “Governments in a total of 30 countries deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year,” Freedom House reports, indicating that there wasn’t just manipulation from other countries, as seen with Russia in the US 2016 elections, but from local governments intervening to assure a victory in upcoming elections.

The research stated within its key findings that governments in 30 countries manipulated social media to undermine democracy and control online conversation, as well as governments restricting live videos on platforms like Facebook and Snapchat in order to restrict the spread of anti-government protests.

Currently, the two countries most known for restricting internet freedom are China and Russia, where the government has notable control over what citizens access and news they consume. But after the surge of distorted information online, “Governments in at least 14 countries actually restricted internet freedom in a bid to address content manipulation.”

Sanja Kelly, director of Freedom on the Net project explains, “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda. 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 report states that the techniques most widely used to influence popular opinion were:

  • Paid commentators
  • Trolls
  • Bots
  • False news sites
  • Propaganda

Apart from the usual tactics used, there are specific cases where governments have taken steps to amplify their achievements. In the Philippines, the government has employed a “keyboard army,” who have the task of boosting news regarding the government’s crackdown on drug dealing in the country.

But the most worrying figure remains journalists attacked offline for content they shared online. Freedom House reports that attacks against these figures rose 50 percent in the last year, with Syria, Mexico, Brazil and Pakistan at the top of the list.

Less than 25 percent of the world has access to what is understood as “free internet”, meaning there are no restrictions or limitations on what users can see or do. Let’s hope that number increases before the internet becomes a real-life version if 1984.

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