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

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The NGO, which conducts research and advocacy on democracy and human rights, says elections in 18 countries suffered from those tactics, including the United States itself.

"The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russian Federation but has now gone global", said Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz.

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.

"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating", he added.

Russian Federation is among 30 countries now using social media bots and trolls to manipulate online information in order to undermine democracy, a report has found.

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".

And in Turkey, around 6,000 are believed to be employed by the government to fight political opponents on social media sites.

"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".

The report comes after an alleged Russia-led campaign was exposed during 2016's U.S. presidential election campaign - shining a bright light on similar, seemingly state-backed, cases of cyber-meddling.

"The year's restrictions included official orders to delete all online references to a newly discovered species of beetle named after Xi, which the censors reportedly found offensive given the beetle's predatory nature", the report said. "The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary".

China was the worst abuser of online freedoms of the 65 countries appraised globally, with Estonia and Iceland at the other end.

Governments in at least 14 countries were accused of actually restricting internet freedom to fend off content manipulation. The Ethiopian government totally shut down mobile networks for two months in a state of emergency during wide-scale anti-government protests.

Governments manipulated social media to undermine democracy: Governments in 30 countries of the 65 countries assessed attempted to control online discussions.

It said internet freedom also took a hit in United States over the past year.

But the most worrying figure remains journalists attacked offline for content they shared online.

Of 63 countries studied, internet freedom worsened in 32 and only got better in 13, according to the latest assessment from Freedom House, a nonprofit devoted to expanding those freedoms with funding from Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Twitter, the US State Department and others.