It's not just Russia - they're all at it, warns Freedom House
Sacha Baron Cohen in the film The Dictator. Image courtesy of Paramount Films
Governments around the world are "dramatically" using dodgy social media tactics to undermine democracy, according to a report published this week.
The latest Freedom on the Net report, published by Freedom House, claims that many governments are increasingly manipulating information on social media for their own political ends.
This is threatening the use of the internet as a liberating form of communication between individuals, the civil liberties group claims.
Online manipulation and disinformation tactics were used in elections of around 18 countries in the last year, Freedom House claims, including the US presidential elections.
Citizens are struggling to choose leaders based on factual news and authentic information because there's an influx of manipulated content appearing on their screens.
In Turkey, around 6,000 are believed to be employed by the government to fight political opponents on social media sites
Internet freedom has declined for a seventh consecutive year, and there's also been a rise in disruption in mobile internet service and technical attacks against human rights organisations.
The report looked at the internet freedom of 65 countries, covering 87 per cent of internet users, and focused on developments between June 2016 and May 2017.
Governments in 30 of these countries are using manipulation tools to distort online information, compared to 23 per cent last year. They're using paid commentators, trolls, bots and false news sites to influence citizens.
The Philippines is a prolific example of a country deploying such technologies. Its government has tasked a keyboard army to make people believe it's cracking down on the drug trade.
And in Turkey, around 6,000 are believed to be employed by the government to fight political opponents on social media sites. There's also Russia's accused meddling in the American presidential election, which was plagued by fake news.
At least 15 countries have restricted internet freedom as well. For instance, Ukraine has stopped citizens from accessing Russia-based services.
The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said: "The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global.
"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating."
Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project, said: "Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda.
"Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it's dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it."
"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."