Think of a country that stifles internet freedom. You might first jump to the oppressive regimes of North Korea, China, or Cuba, where internet access is either forbidden or radically restricted. But in fact, according to a recent study by the non-profit Freedom House, the principles of internet freedom are under attack worldwide—including in the United States. And it’s only getting worse.
Overt government restrictions, after all, aren’t the only way to impede internet freedom. As fake news and propaganda flourish online, and automated bot accounts bloom on social media, the manipulation and distortion of information serves as its own kind of censorship.
The crisis is global. Freedom House based its findings on an annual study of 65 countries, in which the group’s researchers collect data on factors like ready access to the internet in that country, limits on content, intentional manipulation of online conversations, and the treatment of bloggers and content creators, among other details. Researchers then score each country based on those metrics. In 2017, it found that nearly half of the 65 countries experienced a decline since June of 2016, while just 13 made gains. It was the seventh consecutive year in which internet freedom has eroded since Freedom House began studying this trend in 2011.
That means that internet freedom has long experienced a global decline. But according to Adrian Shahbaz, a Freedom House research manager, the unprecedented rise of state-sponsored manipulation and election meddling online was unique to 2017, and may prove much harder to fix than other ills. “Manipulation is much more difficult to detect and combat than other types of censorship because of how dispersed it is, and the sheer amount of people engaged in it,” he says.
Comparatively speaking, US citizens still have it good. The United States remains one of just 16 countries described in the report as “free.” But that freedom faces increasing threats, largely due to the metastatic spread of fake news during the 2016 presidential election. Major platforms like Facebook and Twitter do take a hands-off approach to what people are allowed to say online. But the report contends that phony stories promoted by bot armies and fake accounts end up silencing real people who might otherwise contribute to online conversation.
“Internet users continue to exercise self-censorship due to concerns of government surveillance as well as online harassment by other internet users,” the report reads.
‘Manipulation is much more difficult to detect and combat than other types of censorship because of how dispersed it is, and the sheer amount of people engaged in it.’
Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House
Targeted disinformation campaigns like those Russia leveled against the US are nothing new, of course. But in 2017, it “took on an accelerated and improbably successful form,” says Peter Micek, who leads the policy team at the digital rights advocacy group Access Now. “Colleagues in other parts of the world are quite familiar with disinformation campaigns on and offline, but the US was unprepared for this sort of information-based attack.”
Even as fake news spread, legitimate journalists were increasingly under attack in the US and abroad. Those offensives target more than just credibility. A 2016 report by the Anti-Defamation League found that journalists have recently faced a barrage of antisemitic rhetoric and death threats. And, of course, President Trump has repeatedly used his own Twitter account to harangue the free press.