Electoral manipulation and misinformation campaigns are becoming a rampant issue for social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, a new report claims.
According to the Freedom on the Net 2019 report, internet privacy and freedom of speech online have consistently declined over the past nine years, with 2019 raising additional serious concerns.
“While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civic discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms,” the report asserted.
“Cross-border influence” is a growing issue that must be addressed, the report said, while analysts noted that social media platforms are increasingly being used by “repressive regimes” and “elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions” to manipulate and control populations.
A host of nations worldwide, many of which have questionable civil rights policies, have been ramping up efforts to capitalise on social media as a way to control and distort political processes.
“Authorities in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a growing list of other countries have expanded their efforts to manipulate the online environment and influence foreign political outcomes over the past year”, the report said. “Malicious actors are no doubt emboldened by the failure of democratic states to update transparency and financing rules that are vital to free and fair elections.”
Analysts ranked countries around the world based on internet freedom and government policies. According to the report, China ranked as the world’s worst due to limitations on internet access, certain types of content and a host of user rights violations.
Although the UK and United States ranked high in the report with 77/100, the report highlighted that both nation’s have repeatedly failed to address foreign interference.
The publication of the report comes amid a period of political uncertainty and concerns over the role of social media in elections – both in the UK and the United States. Next month, the British citizens will take to the polls and in November next year, voters across America will decide whether President Donald Trump retains his place in the Whitehouse for another four years.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced last week that the social media platform will ban all political ads ahead of both elections. While the move was viewed as a positive step toward establishing clearer rules on political advertising, the real danger for many still lies in Facebook’s current policies. Spending on political advertising through Facebook eclipses that on Twitter.
Recent weeks have seen the social media giant and CEO Mark Zuckerberg under intense fire from politicians and rights groups on both sides of the Atlantic. The company’s decision to allow politicians – or those campaigning for office – to run purposefully misleading ads has raised serious concerns and prompted a wave of derision.
The report heavily criticised policymakers for a lack of action on this issue and suggested that the ongoing issue of manipulation and misinformation is, in part, “a product of American neglect”.
“While authoritarian powers like China and Russia have played an enormous role in dimming the prospects for technology to deliver greater human rights, the world’s leading social media platforms are based in the United States, and their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is, in large part, a product of American neglect,” the report insisted.
“Whether due to naivete about the internet’s role in democracy promotion or policymaker’s laissez-faire attitude toward Silicon Valley, we now face a stark reality; the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.”