For the third straight year, American Internet users are less free, according to a study that points to the dangers of social media.
That’s in part because of increased U.S. government surveillance, as well as disinformation tied to major political events from both foreign and domestic entities, according to research by the pro-democracy think tank Freedom House.
The organization uses the term “Internet freedom” in its annual country-by-country analysis to refer to multiple issues including Internet access, freedom of expression and privacy. This year, the United States scored 77 out of 100 possible points. Last year, the score was one point higher.
Globally, the report found that about 89 percent of all Internet users are subject to advanced social media monitoring systems implemented by their own governments, the equivalent of roughly 3 billion people. That number includes U.S. citizens and residents.
Governments around the world have “exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control,” the report says.
Internet freedom and privacy are key components of maintaining a free society globally, said Faiza Patel, a co-director at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. In the wrong hands, the fear is that “the government can use all the information it has about you to target you in different ways,” she added.
The United States, where tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google originated, still enjoys far more freedom of expression than most other countries. But the authors of the report say the spread of disinformation threatens to upend the domestic electoral process, while social media surveillance erodes civil liberties, including free speech.
Among the 65 countries assessed by the report on Internet freedom, only 15 – including the United States – were considered “free.” Countries such as India and Ukraine were among the 29 described as “partly free,” while Russia and China were part of the 21 “not free” countries. The United States ranked sixth among free countries, with researchers scoring Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany and Australia higher.
The report was funded by tech giant Google, as well as Verizon’s media division, the nonprofit Internet Society, the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights and Labor, and the New York Community Trust.
Potentially compounding a decline in freedom, Americans have little understanding about the business of social media and how to protect themselves online. A Pew report recently found that only 2 percent of adults were able to correctly answer 10 digital literacy questions covering data privacy, cybersecurity and the business of social media topics.
During the study period of June 2018 to May 2019, Freedom House found some incidents that restricted the freedom of U.S. Internet users. Immigration and law enforcement agencies increased their use of social media surveillance, in some cases using automated tools that identify people of interest. Researchers also cited a March 2019 NBC News report indicating that border agents had compiled social media and other information on 59 people, mostly American citizens, who were to be stopped for questioning at the border. The government said at the time that the list was part of an investigation into border violence.
The report also said that both foreign and domestic actors continued to spread false information in the United States around major political events. In one example, social media accounts thought to be associated with Russia spread disinformation during the 2018 elections and nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. In another, President Trump tweeted false or misleading information meant to disparage Democratic opponents, including a video of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., spliced with images of the 9/11 terrorism attacks.
In a positive development for Internet freedom, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before getting cellphone location records and other location information from third parties. Privacy advocates say the decision creates important restrictions around an extremely sensitive data category.
The report notes that governments around the world are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence and other sophisticated tools to track speech on social media.
China, which the Freedom House report has called “the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom” for four years, offers a stark example of how social media tools can be misused. China has censored the Internet access of residents for years with a “Great Firewall” that limits the flow of information.
Thousands in China are charged with reporting “problematic” content to authorities. Several Chinese provincial governments are also reportedly creating “Police Clouds” that aggregate data such as social media activity, biometric information and video surveillance footage.
In the summer, Facebook and Twitter removed accounts they said represented a coordinated effort by the state to undermine the protests in Hong Kong. A ministry spokesman denied the allegations a few days after they became public.