Social media, "once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation," according to Freedom House's "Freedom of the Net 2019" report
It found that 33 of the 65 surveyed countries, which represent 87 percent of the globe's Internet users, reported a decline in freedom during the past year. Governments in 47 countries arrested Internet users for political, social or political speech.
China topped the list as the worst abuser of Internet freedom. Censorship reached an all-time high as the Chinese government enhanced information controls ahead of the 30thanniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the wake of protests in Hong Kong.
Freedom House found an upswing in the use of the Internet to meddle and distort national elections.
“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said in a statement. “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.”
In the US, Internet freedom declined for the third year in a row as law enforcement and immigration authorities expanded surveillance of the public, eschewing robust oversight and transparency.
"Officials increasingly monitored social media platforms and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices, in some cases to glean information about constitutionally protected activities such as peaceful protests and critical reporting," according to the Report.
Freedom House noted that while the online environment in the US remains "vibrant, diverse, and free from state censorship," disinformation was prevalent, at times exacerbated by top government officials and political leaders.
"The people of the US benefit from an open and competitive political system, a strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties.
However, in recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence."
Though the US is one of the most connected countries in the world, speed and availability of broadband networks lag other developed countries, such as Switzerland, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Germany and Canada.
Freedom House says that though China and Russia play leading roles in undermining the future of social media as a force for good, it's up to the US to take the lead in the fight for Internet freedom—since most of the top platforms are based in America.
"Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the Internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression," according to the Report.
There is little time to waste: "Emerging technologies such as advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and fifth-generation mobile networks will provide new opportunities for human development, but they will also undoubtedly present a new array of human rights challenges."
To Freedom House: "The future of privacy, free expression and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today."