Americans were right to fret about Internet disinformation ahead of Tuesday's elections, but citizens of other countries face an even graver threat: Their governments are the manipulators.
A Freedom House report on digital authoritarianism found that global internet freedom declined for the eighth year in a row in 2018. In almost half of the countries where freedom declined, the reductions occurred ahead of elections. The report offers another reminder that the initial promise of the Internet as a force for liberation can be flipped on its head.
Authoritarian governments seem to have taken tips from the West's information warfare crisis to launch their own offensives. Regimes buy up automated accounts to flood their countries' networks with falsehoods. At least 17 countries also approved or proposed laws in the past year that purport to fight “fake news” but in fact often criminalize criticism. Thirteen countries prosecuted citizens and organizations for sharing false information.
When applied in combination, these tactics are even more troubling: Regimes use bots to blast disinformation and simultaneously punish speech they disagree with, so that all that remains is pro-government propaganda.
Even well-intentioned efforts to fight misinformation can sometimes do more harm than good. Sri Lanka, for example, responded to a viral social media campaign urging users to “kill all Muslims” by blocking all citizens from four platforms. India has had more than 100 reported similar shutdown incidents. Cutting off sites entirely leaves citizens unable to counter rumors, communicate with their families or look up where it is unsafe to travel.
The report's authors suggest that tech companies interested in a freer internet can take steps to improve the status quo – abiding by human rights norms when it comes to answering requests for content takedowns, and partnering with civil society to figure out how to facilitate freedom rather than help regimes tighten control.
Some legislators in the United States and elsewhere think platforms have failed in fighting misinformation. They want to set rules of their own. It's true that there is plenty of work for tech companies to do. Yet this report should serve as a warning: Government intervention is often a disease disguised as a cure.