- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Internet freedoms in the U.S. and around the world declined during the last year due in large part to ongoing problems posed by social media, experts reported Tuesday.

Freedom House, a nonpartisan think tank mostly funded by the U.S. government, cited both the manipulation and monitoring of social media platforms in the U.S. and abroad as major factors in global internet freedoms declining for the ninth consecutive year.

A study of 65 countries found domestic actors used propaganda and disinformation to skew the online landscape during elections held in at least 24 different nations between May 2018 and June 2019, Freedom House reported.

Out of the same 65 countries, authorities in at least 40 have instituted some sort of advanced social media monitoring program, Freedom House found.

“The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media,” said Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “Since these are mainly American platforms, the United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.”

Around 3.8 billion people on the planet have access to the internet, Freedom House reported. Roughly half live in countries where “pro-government commentators” were deployed last year to manipulate online discussions, while the vast majority – 89% – live in countries where their own postings are likely monitored by advanced social media surveillance programs, according to the group.

In the U.S., Freedom House noted that internet users were subjected to both manipulation and surveillance on social media during the period analyzed for the report.

“Disinformation was again prevalent around major political events like the November 2018 midterm elections and congressional confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Both domestic and foreign actors manipulated content for political purposes, undermining the democratic process and stoking divisions in American society,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Law enforcement and immigration agencies expanded their surveillance of the public, eschewing oversight transparency and accountability mechanisms that might restrain their actions,” the report added. “Officials increasingly monitored social media platforms and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices to glean information about constitutionally protected activities such as peaceful protests and critical reporting.”

Researchers have previously found that automated accounts flooded social networks in 2018 with disinformation about the midterm elections and Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination, mimicking a tactic infamously witnessed two years earlier during the previous U.S. presidential race.

More recently, bipartisan legislation introduced this past May would prohibit the government from maintaining its authority to conduct warrantless searches of electronic devices taken from travelers trying to enter the country.

Called the Protecting Data at the Border Act, it was introduced in both the House and Senate on the heels of an internal Department of Homeland Security report finding that federal immigration officials conducted warrantless searchers of around 29,000 devices belonging to 397 million travelers during fiscal year 2017, up roughly 50 percent from the year before.

DHS subsequently announced plans in September to being requesting the social media user names of foreigners requesting permission to enter the U.S.

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