It was recently revealed that Russia tried to sway the Brexit-vote using fake news and disinformation. So was the case with the election of Trump in the November ‘16 US election. But in many countries, the dissemination of online manipulation doesn’t come from foreign states - but from the incumbent government.

A new report from Freedom House called “Freedom on The Net 2017” was released earlier this week and paints a daunting picture of the freedom of the internet anno 2017. Of the 65 countries assessed in the report, nearly half saw a decline in internet freedom during the past year with most dramatic decline in Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey. Just 13 countries made gains.


Countries were ranked on a 100-point scale based on three categories: obstacle to access, limits on content and violation of user rights. The higher the score, the more restrictive is a country’s internet controls. For the third consecutive year, China got the worst score followed by Syria (86), Ethiopia (86) and Iran (85).

Topping the other end of the scale as countries with the most internet freedom in the world were Estonia (6), Iceland (6) and Canada (15).

The secret keyboard armies

As it was revealed with the Russian Olgino Troll-factory in St. Petersburg, state-contracted armies of “opinion-shapers” and pro-government commentators operate in 30 out of the 65 surveyed countries. They are hired to manipulate online discussions without letting the nature of the sponsorship known to the public.

This number is up from last year’s 23 and prevalent in the “yellow” or “partly free” countries – many of which have declining levels of democracy . Moreover, the practice is becoming increasingly sophisticated with the application of bot-networks and stronger algorithms to amplify the dissemination of online manipulation. Fake news were prevalent in 16 democratic elections in the past year.

Sonja Kelly is the director of ‘Freedom of the Net’ at Freedom House and spoke at the report’s launch discussion. She said that the increasing efforts of governments to undermine civil society and the openness of the internet, should be understood in an “arms race” between governments and activists “campaigning against corruption and for openness.“

‘Freedom on the Net’ covers 65 countries around the globe and 87% of the world’s internet users. Other issues in the report was an increase in government shut-downs of internet-access to religious and ethnic minorities as well as an increase in shut-down on mobile-divices to prevent journalists live-streaming anti-government demonstrations.

For better and for worse, the internet with its new information technologies has swept the world. But to Sonja Kelly, there can no longer be any doubt: “this is not confined to the United States and Western Europe. This is a global problem.”