Thirty countries use ‘armies of opinion shapers’ to manipulate democracy report

Governments in Venezuela, the Philippines, Turkey and elsewhere use social media to influence elections, drive agendas and counter critics, says report

The governments of 30 countries around the globe are using armies of so called opinion shapers to meddle in elections, advance anti-democratic agendas and repress their citizens, a new report shows.

Unlike widely reported Russian attempts to influence foreign elections, most of the offending countries use the internet to manipulate opinion domestically, says US NGO Freedom House.

” Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, injury citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate ,” the US government-funded charity said.” Although some governments sought to support their interests and expand their influence abroad, as with Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe, in most cases they used these methods inside their own borders to maintain their hold on power .”

Even in those countries that didn’t have elections in the last year, social media manipulation was still frequent. Of the 65 countries surveyed, 30, including Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey, were found to be using” armies of opinion shapers” to” spread government opinions, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media”, according to Freedom House’s new Freedom on the Net report. In each of the 30 countries it saw” strong indications that individuals are paid to distort the digital information scenery in the government’s favor, without acknowledging sponsorship “.

That number has risen every year since the first is present in 2009. In 2016, merely 23 countries were found to be using the same kind of pro-government “astroturfing”( a fake grassroots movement ). Recently” the practice has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated, with bots, propaganda producers, and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms to ensure high visibility and seamless integration with trusted content ,” the report says.

” The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating … By bolstering the false perception that most citizens stand with them, authorities are able to justify crackdowns on the political opposition and advance anti-democratic changes to laws and institutions without a proper debate .”

The report describes the differed forms this manipulation takes. In the Philippines, it is shown as a” keyboard army” paid $10 a day to operate fake social media accounts, which supported Rodrigo Duterte in the run-up to his election last year, and backed his crackdown on the drug trade this year. Turkey’s ruling party enlisted 6,000 people to manipulate discussions, drive agendas and counter foes. The government of Sudan’s approach is more direct: a division within the country’s intelligence service generated fake accounts to fabricate is supportive of government policies and denounce critical journalists.

” Governments are now using social media to suppress disagreement and advance an anti-democratic agenda ,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project.” Not merely is this manipulation difficult to see, 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 is supportive of government policies on social media generates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside ,” Kelly said.

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