Overt government restrictions, after all, aren't the only way to impede internet freedom. As fake news and propaganda flourish online, and automated bot accounts bloom on social media, the manipulation and distortion of information serves as its own kind of censorship.
The crisis is global. Freedom House based its findings on an annual study of 65 countries, in which the group's researchers collect data on factors like ready access to the internet in that country, limits on content, intentional manipulation of online conversations, and the treatment of bloggers and content creators, among other details. Researchers then score each country based on those metrics. In 2017, it found that nearly half of the 65 countries experienced a decline since June of 2016, while just 13 made gains. It was the seventh consecutive year in which internet freedom has eroded since Freedom House began studying this trend in 2011.
That means that internet freedom has long experienced a global decline. But according to Adrian Shahbaz, a Freedom House research manager, the unprecedented rise of state-sponsored manipulation and election meddling online was unique to 2017, and may prove much harder to fix than other ills. "Manipulation is much more difficult to detect and combat than other types of censorship because of how dispersed it is, and the sheer amount of people engaged in it," he says.
Comparatively speaking, US citizens still have it good. The United States remains one of just 16 countries described in the report as "free." But that freedom faces increasing threats, largely due to the metastatic spread of fake news during the 2016 presidential election. Major platforms like Facebook and Twitter do take a hands-off approach to what people are allowed to say online. But the report contends that phony stories promoted by bot armies and fake accounts end up silencing real people who might otherwise contribute to online conversation.