(CN) — Freedom House issued its annual report Tuesday, warning that social media is an increasingly dangerous tool for mass surveillance and manipulation of elections. Global internet freedom also declined for the ninth straight year, the nonpartisan, U.S.-government-supported organization found.
“What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation,” begins the 32-page report, “Freedom on the Net 2019 — The Crisis of Social Media.”
“While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civic discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism,” authors Adrian Shahbaz and Allie Funk wrote. “The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.”
Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz repeated the warning in a statement.
“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship. Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”
The report was supported by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, among others.
The United States joined Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, India, Zimbabwe and Thailand as countries that had experienced election interference in the past year.
“It’s clear from our research that digital platforms are the new battleground for democracy,” Shahbaz said.
Forty of the 65 countries Freedom House analyzed were using sophisticated mass social media surveillance techniques. Those 65 countries represent 87% of the world’s internet users, according to Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy.
Forty-seven of those countries arrested people for political, social or religious speech online, a new record, the group said. In the United States, law enforcement and immigration authorities conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ social media feeds.
In March this year Pakistan’s Interior Ministry began investigating journalists who had expressed support online for murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On a press call about the report, Shahbaz and Abramowitz said the United States needs to take action, as so many social media platforms are U.S. companies. Shahbaz called on Congress to pass the Honest Ads Act, which expands disclosure requirements for political ads; and the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act, which calls for a paper trail on election ballots.
“The United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age,” Shahbaz said in a statement. “This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.”
In the report itself, Shahbaz and Funk said bad actors have taken full advantage of legislators’ lethargy in the internet era.
“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, and apply them effectively to the online sphere,” they wrote.
Freedom House was founded in 1941. This year’s report was also funded by the New York Community Trust, Google, the Internet Society and Verizon Media.