Governments around the world are increasingly using social media to manipulate elections and monitor its citizens, tilting the technology towards digital authoritarianism. According to a recent report by think tank Freedom House, global internet freedoms declined for the ninth consecutive year.
In the country assessment report, Pakistan has been declared ‘Not Free’ in terms of internet use with a score of 26 out of 100 – one place down from last year’s ranking. Globally, Pakistan is among the worst ten countries in terms of internet and digital media freedom. With respect to regional ranking, Pakistan is the third worst country after Vietnam and China.
The report states that internet freedoms declined due to the increased blocking of political, social and cultural websites. The general elections in 2018 saw connectivity restrictions and increased disinformation including inauthentic content as well as automated accounts and bots supporting various political parties to disseminate false or misleading information.
Internet penetration registered only marginal increase in Pakistan, even though 67 million people have access to broadband connections. The frequent disruption of mobile phone services during protests, elections, religious and national holidays, on the pretext of security has been noted.
Another damning observation was that state and other actors pressurise publishers to remove content, leading to a degree of self-censorship on sensitive topics such as religion, military, separatist movements, women and minority rights. The report also identifies existence of state-sponsored ‘troll armies’ to silent dissent.
This reveals a crisis on popular platforms but the problem does not relate to Pakistan alone. Governments across the democratic spectrum are indiscriminately monitoring citizen’s online behaviour to identify perceived threats and in some cases to silence opposition. The President of Freedom House stated that many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship.
The proliferation of sophisticated monitoring tools has reduced people’s ability to freely express themselves and be active online. Even in the United States, disinformation was prevalent around major political events, spread increasingly by domestic actors.
The report states that the future of internet freedom lies on our ability to fix social media. Therefore, the report comments that US must lead in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age, as many social media networks are American networks. This is the only way to stop the internet from being a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.
Political leaders shape online opinions and harass opponents worldwide. Disinformation is their most commonly used tactic. The report is a timely warning for social media and tech platforms that without action, the situation is likely to get worse.