Governments in 30 countries pay 'keyboard armies' to spread propaganda, report says

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The least free countries in the index are China, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran and Cuba.

Governments around the world have drastically increased their attempts to manipulate information being shared on social media networks, contributing to a seventh consecutive year of decline in internet freedom, a global report said.

Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project, explained such manipulation is often hard to detect, and "more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking". It notes that 6,000 people reportedly were employed on social media by Turkey's ruling party to counter government opposition.

Meanwhile, as Russian Federation sought to spread disinformation to influence elections in the United States and Europe, the Kremlin also tightened its internal controls, the report said. According to the survey, the lowest scorer country enjoys the highest internet freedom.

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It cited the Philippines, in which a "keyboard army" is used to persuade online users that the public is supportive of the government's crackdown on the country's drug trade.

Governments in 30 of these countries are using manipulation tools to distort online information, compared to 23 per cent a year ago.

"The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside", Kelly said.

Voters in 18 nations were influenced by online trolls, propaganda and disinformation campaigns originating from different sources in the a year ago, according to a new study. They're using paid commentators, trolls, bots and false news sites to influence citizens. "Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline".

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The organisation also said that Estonia continued to be one of the most connected countries in the world with regard to internet access, and Estonian internet users faced very few obstacles when it came to accessing the internet.

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. Countries likes Belarus disrupted mobile connectivity to prevent livestreamed images from reaching mass audience.

Freedom House expressed concern over growing restrictions on VPNs - virtual private networks which allow circumvention of censors - which are now in place in 14 countries. Most notable declines were documented in Ukraine, Egypt, and Turkey.

Freedom House is a US-based, USA government-funded non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights.

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