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Internet freedom crumbles as social media becomes tool for autocrats

Reproduced from a Freedom House map; Note: Score based on obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights; Map: Axios Visuals

Internet freedom is in decline around the world, with governments using social media to monitor their citizens and spread disinformation at home and overseas, according to an annual Freedom House report.

The big picture: "What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation," the authors write of social media. "Sophisticated mass surveillance that was once feasible only for the world's leading intelligence agencies is now affordable for a much broader range of states."

Countries in decline:

  • Sudan saw social media blocked during mass protests against now-former President Omar al-Bashir, and speech was severely restricted during a lengthy state of emergency.
  • Kazakhstan's government "temporarily disrupted internet connectivity, blocked ... news websites, and restricted access to social media platforms" to control the conversation around its presidential transition.
  • Brazil has seen a rise of cyberattacks and "social media manipulation," mostly from supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro — who has "hired communications consultants credited with spearheading the sophisticated disinformation campaign."
  • Bangladesh's government, in response to protests over road safety and electoral irregularities, "resorted to blocking independent news websites, restricting mobile networks, and arresting journalists and ordinary users alike."
  • Zimbabwe became a more difficult place to access the internet, both because of economic chaos and crackdowns from the government.

The other side: Ethiopia was one of the few countries in which internet restrictions were loosened this year, under reform-minded Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Improvements were also seen in Malaysia and Armenia.

Superlatives: China is "the world's worst abuser of internet freedom" while Iceland is "the world's best protector."

Go deeper: China named world's worst abuser of internet freedom again