Skip to main content

Less freedom on the Internet

World leaders are using social media as a tool of disinformation and control. This is making the Internet less free. In the US, the homeland of the greatest social media giants, the situation has worsened in the past three years, according to a report from the organisation Freedom House. We have interviewed Allie Funk who is an analyst at Freedom House.

Credits Text: Jonas Cullberg Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Photo: Luke Michael March 03 2020

In the late summer of 2018, in a sizzling New York protests against Donald Trump raged following the disclosure that children of Mexican immigrants had been taken from their parents during the process of hindering the families from crossing the US border. This summer is also characterised by protests against right wing extremist activity in the country, which has escalated during Trump’s presidential era.

On July 31, 2018, Adrianno Espaillat, congressman for the Democrats in New York, arranges a demonstration. It is a reaction to the incident a few days earlier when the white-power organisation Identity Evropa held a manifestation at Fort Trayon Park in northern Manhattan, in Espaillat’s congressional district, where many inhabitants are immigrants with roots in the Dominican Republic. More than 300 demonstrators show up alongside Espaillat under banners against racism and xenophobia. The messages are peaceful, as is the demonstration, and several elected politicians take part.

But despite the relatively uncontroversial theme of this demonstration in the summer of 2018 it still found its way onto a list of “anti-Trump protests” compiled by the immigration office ICE. There were also several other demonstrations for immigrants’ rights, or against Trump’s politics of deportation, and even one against the NRA (The National Rifle Association), and information on the participants and organizers, and other information, had been collected by the immigration office from event pages on Facebook.

This approach has become more common in the US. In June 2018 the US Department of Homeland Security made use of the private security firm LookingGlass Cyber Solutions in order to fetch information from Facebook concerning more than 600 demonstrators against immigration policies around the country.

Allie Funk, analyst at Freedom House, a Washington-based organisation that charts the well being of democratic countries worldwide, sees these occurrences as examples of a disturbing development. Funk says: “This last year we have noted that police and immigration authorities, without having permission, more often monitor social media platforms and also search through electronic equipment.”

Allie Funk continues: “This has effected activities that are protected by the American Constitution such as peaceful protests and journalism. One example is the American journalist who was detained for several hours by the American border police while they searched through both his mobile and his computer.”

Reporters Without Borders report another twenty similar cases. “There has not been much transparency surrounding these events, and we are worried that they will become increasingly common,” says Allie Funk.

Each year Freedom House releases a report about the worldwide status of Internet freedom—a concept that encompasses a freedom of information, a freedom of expression and integrity on the web. According to the Freedom House’ calculations, in the US Internet freedom has been declining for three years in a row.

“This problem did not start as from the elections in 2016 or when Trump swore the Presidential oath in 2017. The Department of Homeland Security began to monitor social media already during the Obama administration. There has, however, been an escalation that is in line with the current Government’s immigration policies,” says Allie Funk.

Another reason why Internet freedom is on the decline, according to the Freedom House’ ranking, is the continued problem of disinformation on the Internet. In connection to the elections in 2016 the problem was widespread and widely acknowledged. Attempting to create confusion and conflict among American voters Russia invested greatly in the dissemination of misleading information.

“There are indications that disinformation will escalate during the elections of 2020. However, in these past years we have noted that disinformation and a manipulated content is more often being spread by domestic agents instead of foreign ones,” says Allie Funk.

She mentions, for example, the spreading of false news in connection to the senate hearings of the incoming High Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is being charged of sexual assault. There was also a campaign to smear the reputation of Christine Blasey Ford, who gave witness that Kavanaugh had assaulted her at high school. Among other things, false rumours that the Democrats paid for Ford’s lawyers were shared. The website Right Wing News created a great number of Facebook accounts under various names that spread this information profusely.

“Various studies have shown that alternative or heavily politicized news sites are strong motors in the spreading of this domestic disinformation,” says Allie Funk. And she continues: “It is extremely disturbing that this deceptive information is now more often passed along by President Trump on his official accounts on social media.”

The US is far from being the only country with a declining Internet freedom. Among the 65 countries that Freedom House has examined only 15, among them the US, categorise as “free.” The report from Freedom House describes a development where totalitarian regimes in many places in the world are using social media as instruments to control their citizens.

One country that has been pinpointed in the Freedom House’ survey is Brazil following on the right wing populist Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory in 2018. Before the election, alongside disinformation on social media, there were massive cyber attacks on journalists and government bodies. On a grand scale Bolsonaro’s supporters spread fake news and pictures, and homo-phobic rumours via WhatsApp and Youtube. After the victory Bolsonaro engaged persons who had been part of the disinformation campaign as communication consultants.

At the bottom of the list that Freedom House has made on Internet freedom is China, the world’s next biggest economy after the US. In 2019, in connection to the 30-year anniversary of the massacre on Tianamnen Square and the current democracy protests in Hong Kong, censorship has tightened up. Over this past year the regime has closed down a great amount of accounts on the popular social media platform WeChat, referring to “deviant behaviour” such as commenting on environmental catastrophes in the country.

These harsher methods have effected tens of millions Internet users and have entailed a harsher self-censorship and less opportunity for online mobilization, writes Freedom House. They see a risk that more countries become inspired by such authoritarian methods. China is the world leader in developing and exporting tools for surveillance in social media. The Chinese company Semptian claims that it monitors 200 million people in China—a fifth of the country’s Internet users.

“Countries such as Russia and China are effectively promoting their model abroad and are working to convince other regimes to follow suit,” says Allie Funk. “The USA and other democratic countries need to find a new way of protecting our freedom on the Internet domestically in order to convince other countries that it is the correct way forward.”

According to the Freedom House report, the world’s most important social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, WhatsApp and Twitter are all American creations, and that they are being used by anti-democratic forces is largely a consequence of the lack of agency on behalf of the US.

The organization suggests several measures to counter this diminishing Internet freedom, and among these is to decrease the possibility of the American administration to monitor its citizens’ behaviour on social media and to stop the export of technology to totalitarian states—technology that can be used to monitor people on the Internet.

The problem of disinformation in connection with elections could be combated if the tech companies manage to guarantee that it is clear who is behind a certain advertisement. “Content must be examined and advertisements must have a connection to a domestic agent,” says Allie Funk. “We want true transparency concerning who is paying for the advertisement so that for example Facebook users know that a political agent is behind an advert”.

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved