Internet freedom declined for a ninth consecutive year as governments around the world used social media to monitor citizens and manipulate elections, according to a new study that warned of creeping "digital authoritarianism." Thirty-three of the 65 countries surveyed were found to have experienced worsening internet freedom since June 2018, compared with 16 that were found to have improving conditions.
The study, conducted by Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights advocacy, said domestic disinformation had grown as a threat to democracy with populist leaders and their online supporters using the internet to distort political discussions. The organization found domestic interference in 26 of the 30 countries that held elections over the past year.
"Internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism," according to the report. "Repressive regimes, elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions, and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments of political distortion and societal control."
The report said internet freedom in the US had declined, in large part because law enforcement and immigration agencies used social media to monitor people, though the country was still deemed "free." China was dubbed the "worst abuser of internet freedom" for a fourth consecutive year as the government tightened information controls because of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and protests in Hong Kong.
Noting that the biggest platforms were American, Freedom House called on the US to lead in the effort to fix social media transparency and accountability. "This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression," wrote Adrian Shahbaz, one of the authors of the report.