The Crisis of Social Media
What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation.
By Adrian Shahbaz, Allie Funk - 04. February 2019
Internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism, which have spread rapidly around the globe. Repressive regimes, elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions, and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control. While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civic discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms. Moreover, a startling variety of governments are deploying advanced tools to identify and monitor users on an immense scale. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019.
Social media allow ordinary people, civic groups, and journalists to reach a vast audience at little or no cost, but they have also provided an extremely useful and inexpensive platform for malign influence operations by foreign and domestic actors alike. Political leaders employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions in 38 of the 65 countries covered in this report—a new high. In many countries, the rise of populism and far-right extremism has coincided with the growth of hyperpartisan online mobs that include both authentic users and fraudulent or automated accounts. They build large audiences around similar interests, lace their political messaging with false or inflammatory content, and coordinate its dissemination across multiple platforms.
While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civil discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism.
Cross-border influence operations, which first drew widespread attention as a result of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential contest, are also an increasingly common problem. Authorities in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a growing list of other countries have expanded their efforts to manipulate the online environment and influence foreign political outcomes over the past year. Malicious actors are no doubt emboldened by the failure of democratic states to update transparency and financing rules that are vital to free and fair elections, and apply them effectively to the online sphere.
In addition to facilitating the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation during election periods, social media platforms have enabled the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data on entire populations. Sophisticated mass surveillance that was once feasible only for the world’s leading intelligence agencies is now affordable for a much broader range of states. Freedom House research indicates that more repressive governments are acquiring social media surveillance tools that employ artificial intelligence to identify perceived threats and silence undesirable expression. Even in democracies, such mass monitoring is spreading across government agencies and being used for new purposes without adequate safeguards. The result is a sharp global increase in the abuse of civil liberties and shrinking online space for civic activism. Of the 65 countries assessed in this report, a record 47 featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech.
While authoritarian powers like China and Russia have played an enormous role in dimming the prospects for technology to deliver greater human rights, the world’s leading social media platforms are based in the United States, and their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is in large part a product of American neglect. Whether due to naïveté about the internet’s role in democracy promotion or policymakers’ laissez-faire attitude toward Silicon Valley, we now face a stark reality: the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media. This report offers a series of recommendations to that end, but whatever the specific solutions, the United States must take the lead in rallying defenders of the open internet to fairly regulate a technology that has become a necessity for our commerce, politics, and personal lives.
There is no more time to waste. Emerging technologies such as advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and fifth-generation mobile networks will provide new opportunities for human development, but they will also undoubtedly present a new array of human rights challenges. Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today.
The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.
Tracking the Global Decline
Freedom on the Net is a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users. It tracks improvements and declines in internet freedom conditions each year. The countries included in the study have been selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types. In-depth reports on each country can be found at freedomonthenet.org.
More than 70 analysts contributed to this year’s edition, using a 21-question research methodology that addresses internet access, freedom of expression, and privacy issues. In addition to ranking countries by their internet freedom score, the project offers a unique opportunity to identify global trends related to the impact of information and communication technologies on democracy. Country-specific data underpinning this year’s trends is available online. This report, the ninth in its series, focuses on developments that occurred between June 2018 and May 2019.
Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on an overall decline since June 2018, compared with 16 that registered net improvements. The biggest score declines took place in Sudan and Kazakhstan followed by Brazil, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe.
In Sudan, nationwide protests sparked by devastating economic hardship led to the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir after three decades in power. Authorities blocked social media platforms on several occasions during the crisis, including a two-month outage, in a desperate and ultimately ineffective attempt to control information flows. The suspension of the constitution and the declaration of a state of emergency further undermined free expression in the country. Harassment and violence against journalists, activists, and ordinary users escalated, generating multiple allegations of torture and other abuse.
In Kazakhstan, the unexpected resignation of longtime president Nursultan Nazarbayev—and the sham vote that confirmed his chosen successor in office—brought simmering domestic discontent to a boil. The government temporarily disrupted internet connectivity, blocked over a dozen local and international news websites, and restricted access to social media platforms in a bid to silence activists and curb digital mobilization. Also contributing to the country’s internet freedom decline were the government’s efforts to monopolize the mobile market and implement real-time electronic surveillance.
The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s October 2018 presidential election proved a watershed moment for digital election interference in the country. Unidentified actors mounted cyberattacks against journalists, government entities, and politically engaged users, even as social media manipulation reached new heights. Supporters of Bolsonaro and his far-right “Brazil over Everything, God above Everyone” coalition spread homophobic rumors, misleading news, and doctored images on YouTube and WhatsApp. Once in office, Bolsonaro hired communications consultants credited with spearheading the sophisticated disinformation campaign.
In Bangladesh, citizens organized mass protests calling for better road safety and other reforms, and a general election was marred by irregularities and violence. To maintain control over the population and limit the spread of unfavorable information, the government resorted to blocking independent news websites, restricting mobile networks, and arresting journalists and ordinary users alike.
Deteriorating economic conditions in Zimbabwe made the internet less affordable. As civil unrest spread throughout the country, triggering a violent crackdown by security forces, authorities restricted connectivity and blocked social media platforms.
China confirmed its status as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year. Censorship reached unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls in advance of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the face of widespread antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. In a relatively new tactic, administrators shuttered individual accounts on the hugely popular WeChat social media platform for any sort of “deviant” behavior, including minor infractions such as commenting on environmental disasters, which encouraged pervasive self-censorship. Officials have reported removing tens of thousands of accounts for allegedly “harmful” content on a quarterly basis. The campaign cut individuals off from a multifaceted tool that has become essential to everyday life in China, used for purposes ranging from transportation to banking. This blunt penalty has also narrowed avenues for digital mobilization and further silenced online activism.
Internet freedom declined in the United States. While the online environment remains vibrant, diverse, and free from state censorship, this report’s coverage period saw the third straight year of decline. Law enforcement and immigration agencies expanded their surveillance of the public, eschewing oversight, transparency, and accountability mechanisms that might restrain their actions. Officials increasingly monitored social media platforms and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices to glean information about constitutionally protected activities such as peaceful protests and critical reporting. Disinformation was again prevalent around major political events like the November 2018 midterm elections and congressional confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Both domestic and foreign actors manipulated content for political purposes, undermining the democratic process and stoking divisions in American society. In a positive development for privacy rights, the Supreme Court ruled that warrants are required for law enforcement agencies to access subscriber-location records from third parties.
Only 16 countries earned improvements in their internet freedom scores, and most gains were marginal. Ethiopia recorded the biggest improvement this year. The April 2018 appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed led to an ambitious reform agenda that loosened restrictions on the internet. Abiy’s government unblocked 260 websites, including many known to report on critical political issues. Authorities also lifted a state of emergency imposed by the previous government, which eased legal restrictions on free expression, and reduced the number of people imprisoned for online activity. Although the government continued to impose network shutdowns, they were temporary and localized, unlike the nationwide shutdowns that had occurred in the past.
Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on an overall decline since June 2018.
Other countries also benefited from an opening of the online environment following political transitions. A new coalition government in Malaysia made good on some of its democratic promises after winning May 2018 elections and ending the six-decade reign of the incumbent coalition. Local and international websites that were critical of the previous government were unblocked, while disinformation and the impact of paid commentators known as “cybertroopers” began to abate. However, these positive developments were threatened by a rise in harassment, notably against LGBT+ users and an independent news website, and by the 10-year prison term imposed on a user for Facebook comments that were deemed insulting to Islam and the prophet Muhammad.
In Armenia, positive changes unleashed by the 2018 Velvet Revolution continued, with reformist prime minister Nikol Pashinyan presiding over a reduction in restrictions on content and violations of users’ rights. In particular, violence against online journalists declined, and the digital news media enjoyed greater freedom from economic and political pressures.
Iceland became the world’s best protector of internet freedom, having registered no civil or criminal cases against users for online expression during the coverage period. The country boasts enviable conditions, including near-universal connectivity, limited restrictions on content, and strong protections for users’ rights. However, a sophisticated nationwide phishing scheme challenged this free environment and its cybersecurity infrastructure in 2018.
Freedom on the Net 2019 Interactive Map
Explore our new interactive map here!
EXPLORE THE 2019 REPORT IN DETAIL
Some African governments using social media to monitor citizens: Freedom House report
A report by US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House says many Africans are unknowingly under surveillance by their own states via social media platforms. Zimbabwe and Sudan are among the countries to be singled out.
Zimbabwean blogger Munya Bloggo saw it coming — the gradual deterioration of internet freedom in the southern African country.
"It started off with the internet shutdown in January for a few days," Bloggo told DW in an interview.
"Then the method changed to trying to silence different voices online, from activists to even comedians," said Bloggo, who is also project manager officer for Magamba, an urban culture and civil rights organization.
As a blogger, Bloggo is accustomed to online threats and cyberbullying. But even he admits that the risks keep growing.
"In 2017, one of our colleagues was arrested and detained for five days at a maximum-security prison for allegedly trying to overthrow a legitimately elected government using social media," he said.
Pin Wheel: Freedom of Speech
Threat to activists
According to the 2019 "Freedom on the Net" reportpublished by Freedom House, governments are increasingly turning to social media to garner huge amounts of data from citizens to identify perceived threats and often to silence opposition. The report warns that social media surveillance threatens civil rights activism on digital platforms.
"This often includes using artificial intelligence, and in many cases, security agencies are automating their mass surveillance of social media," Isabel Linzer, an expert at Freedom House on internet freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, told DW in an interview. "We have seen this in several sub-Saharan Africa countries, such as Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria and Uganda."
Many African governments, like Zimbabwe, have passed laws that enable them to monitor their citizens and follow their behavior online. "Apart from the legislation, there is the harnessing of social media by the government to promote its own agenda and to drown out perceived subversive opinions and dissenters online," Natasha Musonza, a digital rights and security trainer, told DW.
"For example, at the behest of the president, many new social media accounts, and what we call 'paid Twitter,' were created ahead of the 2018 election," Musonza said. Their main purpose, she said, was to overshadow online protests, disrupt conversations and to stalk and harass popular online influencers and opinion leaders.
'Varakashi' ZANU PF’s online army
"There is a group of people on Twitter that identified themselves as 'varakashi', which in the Shona language means 'to destroy.' The new president [Emerson Mnangagwa] made a call to [his supporters] to 'go online and varakashi!' Suddenly, new accounts were created, eggheads with no real names or faces. They literally targeted [people] and we could observe a trend," said Musonza, who has also done extensive research on internet freedom in Zimbabwe. Her organization tried to map the [social media] trends but were unsuccessful because at the time it was such a large endeavor.
Zimbabwe's President Emerson Mnangagwa unleashed a cyberarmy to 'destroy opponents' in the 2018 election
Zimbabwe also has what is known as the Interception of Communications Act. "The name of that law itself tells you what kind of powers the government has given itself. They've given themselves the power to intercept different people's devices, people that they consider to be of interest or activists that are 'troublemakers,'" Musonza said.
"It’s something that deters people from expressing themselves freely because you never know when that law can be applied to you," blogger Munya Bloggo said. "Whatever you tweet or say online can be interpreted by the state as trying to overthrow the government."
Zimbabwe has been struggling with a weak economy, which the government has blamed on Western sanctions. As a result, many Zimbabweans care more about how to put food on the table than restrictive internet laws, Musonza said.
Social media's role in Sudan’s revolution
Social media played a crucial role in last year's protests in Sudan that eventually led to the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir. "If it were not for social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp, I don't think anyone in the world would hear about Sudan and the revolution," Sanosi Osman, DW's correspondent in Khartoum, said.
Many Sudanese protesters used social media to mobilize
During the reign of al-Bashir, censorship and internet surveillance by state actors was prevalent. The new government in Sudan promised change, and it still enjoys popularity among those who took part in the uprising. "The government understands that they are the result of this uprising. They know better than to throw away these freedoms and rights of the people," Osman said.
"If they start blocking or using their authority to deny people their rights, they will go out [to protest] on the streets again," he added.
However, Osman said that he still faces difficulty accessing certain websites such as Netflix, PayPal and Adobe in Sudan. He attributed the problem to the sanctions that were put in place during the former regime.
Weaponization of information during elections
Freedom House's Isabel Linzer said the watchdog was concerned by the weaponization of information, especially at election times. "We saw misinformation, for example, around the elections in Nigeria," she said. One of the most troubling findings, she explained to DW, "is that propaganda and false information on elections are generally more effective than some other means of trying to control how the population votes."
Who then should be responsible for ensuring there is internet freedom for all? "Everybody. Tech companies, the government, civil society they all have a role to play," Linzer said.
African governments are increasingly turning to social media as a way of controlling and shutting down critics
According to Linzer, the government can play a key role in implementing rules for elections protecting free speech: "Civil society can help push the government to make those rules and raise awareness around things like elections, which we see as a flashpoint for internet freedom violations."
Lastly, tech companies have a responsibility to work closely with partners on the ground to understand key issues and the context in those countries and how their platforms are being used, she said.
EXPLORE THE 2019 REPORT IN DETAIL
Digital platforms are the new battleground for democracy.
Governments are increasingly using digital technology to monitor citizens’ behavior online.
INTERNET FREEDOM SCORE — BIGGEST GAINS
Ethiopia saw an 11 point improvement in its internet freedom score.
Angola saw a 4 point improvement in its internet freedom score.
Armenia saw a 3 point improvement in its internet freedom score.
INTERNET FREEDOM SCORE — BIGGEST DECLINES
Sudan saw a 10 point decline in its internet freedom score.
Kazakhstan saw a 6 point decline in its internet freedom score.
Brazil saw a 5 point decline in its internet freedom score.
About Freedom on the Net 2019
Freedom on the Net is a Freedom House project consisting of cutting-edge analysis, fact-based advocacy, and on-the-ground capacity building. Read more about the report research team, its methodologies, and current funders.
Hero Image Caption: A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask holds up a placard during a demonstration to mark the global "The Day We Fight Back" protest against mass surveillance outside the Supreme Court in Manila, Philippines. Credit: NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images.