Government-controlled ‘keyboard’ armies now a global phenomenon, new report says

By now, the world is well aware of how Russia used armies of bots and online commentary to manipulate information on social media and spread disinformation during the United States’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Less well known is how those methods have spread internationally, with dozens of countries, including the Philippines, Turkey and Sudan, using social media to suppress dissenting voices and promote an anti-democratic agenda.

Inspired by Russia’s pioneering work, authoritarian countries have turned to “fake news” and Twitter bots to create disinformation campaigns that undermine their internal enemies. The spread of such techniques was chronicled in a report released Tuesday by Freedom House, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for freedom and democracy.

Out of 65 countries surveyed for the report from June 2016 to May, 30 countries were using methods of information manipulation and disinformation largely developed and tested by Russia and China during the last decade, according to the report. At least 18 countries’ elections, including the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S., were affected by the manipulations during the report’s research period.

In the Philippines, investigative reporters found that a “keyboard army” created fake news, fake accounts, bots and trolls to promote the presidential campaign of Rodrigo Duterte, the authoritarian firebrand who eventually won the election. Now in office, Duterte quickly drew criticism for his government’s harsh crackdown on drug dealers and drug abuse. Human rights advocates have accused him of extrajudicial killings.

Freedom House researchers found that after Duterte took office in July 2016, these keyboard soldiers were paid as much as $10 a day to continue using social media to attack oppositional journalists and online voices on the internet for speaking out against Duterte’s government.

“It’s not a censorship technique in the traditional sense, but it is a method that is being used to undermine democracy,” said Sanja Kelly, the director of the project, called Freedom on the Net. Government-backed online commentators or bots are limiting free speech, and “we are seeing a chilling effect,” she said in an interview Monday.

“If you have an opposition figure…

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