Comments 52 Share what you think. View all. More top stories. Bing Site Web Enter search term: Search. Get Me Out Of Here! Today's headlines Most Read The Queen wipes away a tear as she leads the nation in a poignant two-minutes silence for Remembrance Sunday Sajid Javid warns Jeremy Corbyn's spending plans would cause a UK economic crisis 'within months, not years' Husband of mummy blogger Clemmie Hooper says he's 'angry and sad' and had 'no idea' she set up a fake Our GP answers the Jeremy Corbyn smartens up his act: Labour leader wears a navy overcoat to the Cenotaph after being slammed Boris Johnson's girlfriend Carrie Symonds teams modest navy ensemble with glamorous fascinator - as she pays Soldier's thrilled granddaughter named Poppie, nine, gets a birthday hug from Meghan Markle as she visits Britain's bravest brothers: Siblings who grew up 'poor as church mice' were posthumously awarded the Lest we forget!
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When viewed together, these tactics represent what can be called a distributed attack on expression and press freedom. Just as a distributed denial of service DDoS attack renders a website inaccessible through a flood incoming traffic from many different sources—requests that overwhelm the server and make it impossible to operate—these new threats combine to overwhelm public institutions, the media, and the democratic principles that undergird civil society.
As in a DDoS assault, in isolation, none of the incoming requests is out-of-the-ordinary or seen as malicious, but together the effect is paralyzing. And because the attacks are distributed—they are launched from different systems operating in conjunction with each other rather than a single source—they can also be more difficult to address.
In essence, authoritarian regimes and other political actors interested in manipulating the public sphere have utilized new mechanisms to influence the flow of information in ways that undermine the ability of journalists to report stories, disseminate their content, and also the capacity of citizens to assess what information is reliable and accurate. These conditions curtail the ability of media to fulfill their role to inform the public, stifle discourse in civil society, and have the longer-term effect of eroding public trust in the news media.
Over the past couple of years there has been a heightened, global awareness about the impact that disinformation campaigns can have on political processes, both in authoritarian countries and democracies. Though sowing doubt and cynicism through false narratives is not a new tactic, it is one that has taken on new manifestations in the age of social media. Little attention, however, has been given to the chilling or stifling effects of disinformation campaigns on freedom of expression and the press.
Even when audiences remain unconvinced by disinformation or propaganda, the distribution of intentionally misleading information or false accusations can still achieve its goal of undermining a free and open news media ecosystem by crowding out reliable content and re-directing the topics of public discussion. Furthermore, while disinformation campaigns may be directed by state actors or their direct proxies, in many cases they are independently amplified by real individuals acting on their own accord.
This is another way in which these new mechanisms are distributed, and therefore harder to counteract. The blurred lines and multiple vectors from which this type of content emanates make addressing these distributed attacks on freedom of expression and the press incredibly complex.
Complicating matters even further, the media ecosystem has also undergone a dramatic shift over the past twenty years. New tech platforms, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter now play a central role in the global circulation of news, and have upended traditional news organizations by both altering distribution mechanisms and reconfiguring the advertising market, which has had an extremely negative impact on privately-owned news outlets traditionally supported by advertising.
In terms of these new forms of censorship, the business models of social media corporations have generated perverse incentives that have exacerbated the problem at times, particularly when it comes to the circulation of dis- and misinformation. In many instances, the lack of transparency practiced by these private companies has also obfuscated the true scope of these challenges and how are they affecting societies.
Through case studies in Ukraine, Turkey, the Philippines, Bahrain, and China, this report will elucidate how new forms of distributed online censorship have undermined freedom of expression and press freedom in ways that defy conventional notions of control. While these various methods are often used in conjunction with each other, by highlighting them separately, we gain a better sense of how they operate, and therefore, how public and private sector entities and broader civil society can respond.
Indeed, journalists, public and private sector entities, civil society, and others concerned with the development of news media ecosystems must understand how these techniques operate in order to construct and implement effective responses. Unfortunately, there is no easy policy solution to the new forms of censorship because these practices often take advantage of technologies that are benign or even beneficial.
For example, an automated social media account that warns people of traffic congestion is quite different from one that disseminates state propaganda. Ultimately, we need to develop responses that address the problem while at the same time do not undermine freedom of expression or the development of new technologies that benefit society.
The rise of news forms of online censorship begs us to reexamine how governments negotiate news media ecosystems in an era where the internet is a primary communications tool. The growing importance of the global network as a tool to organize economic growth has meant that even authoritarian regimes—those most wary of allowing citizens access to independent news and information—have often allowed access to digital networks.
In opening their economies to the world, they also afforded citizens the benefits that come with connecting to global communications networks, such as broader access to information. These benefits in turn come with a loss of control over the ideas that their citizens encounter. Certain scholars argued that digital communication technologies would be liberating, 2 opening dictatorships or struggling democracies to different sources of news and information.
Indeed, we now see that the internet, while providing an essential communication tool to reformers and opposition groups, also provides a useful tool for dictators and their allies to surveil and censor. Authoritarian regimes are using new technological methods to pursue their opponents online. The internet has developed rapidly in the past six years, as more people have moved online, but connected in different ways, using fewer websites and blogs and more social networks and messaging services.
Egypt is a particularly important case in the sense of internet control and censorship because it also provides an example of a country that completely shut down its networks for a time, one of the largest national internet disconnections in history. Internet shutdowns are only the bluntest instrument in the large toolkit of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rulers, and they come at a cost. HTTPS makes it very difficult for regimes to block specific pages a user requests from a domain because the request is encrypted, and as a result many countries have increasingly had to block entire networks, as Turkey did for Twitter in , 12 or China and Iran now do for Facebook and Twitter.
Blocking tools for websites and individual pages are a simpler form of censorship, and often ineffective when access is defined by large social networks rather than email, individually hosted web pages and forums. Because of these costly trade offs, regimes are relying on new technological tools to monitor and disrupt the flow of news and information online, ranging from automated accounts, analyzing fast-expanding stores of data, or manipulating algorithms on which billions now depend for content. The new methods authoritarian governments and other undemocratic actors are using to disrupt and manipulate democratic dialogue online are designed to allow the internet to continue to operate, while providing greater control over how information is disseminated and reaches the intended audience.
More importantly, some of these techniques can be used not only domestically, but also abroad. This is feasible given that they often employ global social media platforms. These tactics include the use of networks of automated accounts, as well as individuals employed by the state or a private company with connections to the state operating multiple profiles to post messages, support others, and influence trending topics on social networks.
Other forms of computational propaganda include the manipulation of algorithms to change the topics of conversation, as well as the pages, posts, advertising and other content that users see. Governments and other entities can make use of large stores of data that private entities have gathered on individuals to target them very precisely and filter what they see online. For instance, if stories go viral on Facebook or Twitter, they are often picked up on television or in newspapers and online outlets.
As a result, automated tactics can be amplified by various forms of media. What are these new tools and tactics precisely, and how do they differ from the ones that came before? How are these new forms of online censorship subtler than the ones that were used earlier, and do we have tools for monitoring and tracking them so that we can explain them to others working in the media, monitors and more broadly within civil society?
What are the responses that those in media, government, and civil society can formulate to encourage the proliferation of a free, open, and democratic networked public sphere? The following sections of this report contain examples of how these new forms of censorship are operating in different authoritarian and contested democratic environments all over the world. The examples illustrate techniques that are being used by regimes to monitor populations, censor citizens, block networks, and affect social media that often originate or are hosted in democratic countries.
In each case, the stifling impact on the news media is clear, from the disruption of content distribution to the de-legitimatization of sources.
Evident too in each case is a grave threat to the possibility of democratic dialogue, and the opportunities this creates for resurgent authoritarianism. As social media has become an increasingly important arena for the circulation of news and the formation of public opinion, marketers and political advocates of all stripes have taken to these platforms to promote their brands and messages through large groups of social network users who purposefully create content and interact with other users.
However, these influence campaigns take on a whole other dimension when they are funded by states with deep pockets and enacted with specific geopolitical intentions. This is what happened in in Ukraine when the Russian government launched a concerted effort to disrupt the news media ecosystem amid the political upheaval of the EuroMaidan protests.
The use of state-sponsored trolls to spread disinformation and to attack Ukrainian journalists online was one of the primary tactics that the Russian government employed. First, the Russian government had already developed a network of paid posters trolls under the government of Dmitry Medvedev. Companies such as the Internet Research Agency, a quasi-independent organizations with deep connections to the state, emerged at this time. This St. Petersburg based group brings together a complex of programmers, spammers, and simple computer users who design and participate in varying online campaigns against opposition candidates, parties, and other movements.
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These tactics, combined with the oppressive legal and political climate, seriously affected the way that the media operated in Russia. Those few outlets that remained independent had to develop strong cybersecurity practices to protect sources, keep communications within the newsroom private, and keep their operations online. This cybernetic connection with Russia as well as the fact that many Ukrainians got their news from Russian language television and radio made the country very susceptible to a disinformation campaign.
This intervention, which began in , showed the power of these networks to extend their reach outside of Russia. Six years later, Yanukovych regained power in another election only to be challenged in by another round of protests against corruption and a decision by his government to cancel an agreement to move towards integration with the European Union.
The protests coalesced in Maidan Square in Kiev and the movement they generated came to be known as the EuroMaidan. The massive, nation-wide protest paralyzed the country. In a referendum that November that occurred under Russian military occupation and was denounced as illegitimate by the west, Crimea was incorporated into the Russian Federation. These events became foci of disinformation campaigns by the Russian government, from denying the assistance that Russian forces gave to paramilitaries in Ukrainian regions, to the downing of a Malaysian Airways flight by those groups during the war.
While in some cases these trolls, often amplified by bots, spread messages based on common themes and central organizational principles, in other cases they did so in more decentralized and multifarious ways. Once the protests began, these networks developed quickly.
Research showed that various bot networks were created during both the EuroMaidan protests and the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in Bots or trolls have even been used to monitor real users for violations of the terms of service and report them with the goal of getting them banned or suspended. In one case, a journalist had their Facebook account disconnected for posting about the downing of a Malaysian Airways commercial airliner MH17 during the war for Eastern Ukraine. On the whole, these tactics represented a distributed form of attack on freedom of expression and the press because they sought to hinder the ability of journalists to communicate the news and prevented Ukrainian citizens from being able to easily access high-quality information.
Ukrainians have developed some responses to these attacks on their information ecosystem. For example, at the Kyiv-Mohyla School of Journalism, a group of individuals formed the fact-checking initiative StopFake. This organization counters false news narratives pushed by Russia by identifying, analyzing, and discrediting over 1, stories on social media since its formation in This combination of network analysis, identification of content, dissection of propaganda, and use of video and social media provides an effective example of how media can evolve and respond to these new challenges.
Ukrainian journalists have played a major role in exposing bot networks and the use of Russian computational propaganda. The news website Texty. This model is especially powerful when applied with traditional forms of narrative journalism.
The Ukrainian government attempted to form a user base of social media agents to counter false narratives, and registered 40, individuals to work to oppose false narratives. However, the government has not been able to confirm that they have used this base in any consistent way. Ukraine is currently wrought by civil strife, and unfortunately these fractures are reflected in its social networks, which havebeen exploited by Russia and its allies. The country provides examples of how networks, both human and robotic, can shape narratives about events and people, but also how new kinds of media organizations like StopFake and Texty can begin to describe and counter these narratives by identifying the networks that propagate them and the content they are sending.
Simultaneously, they are working to push back on these narratives by explaining why the stories are wrong and also how to use social media to discredit them. As a result, Ukraine is both a sign of how new forms of distributed censorship can operate in contested contexts, and how civil society and media can begin to form effective responses. Developments in Turkey over the past five years provide another example of how authoritarian state agencies use large networks of pro-government users to undermine the free exchange of ideas. His government has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world and has shuttered or threatened more than media outlets in the wake of a military coup against his regime in The protests in Istanbul against the destruction of public space Gezi Park caught the attention of many citizens throughout the country, online and through social networks, and quickly became a touchstone for the opposition movement.
The first component comes through a network of supportive social media accounts. Erdogan pledged to wipe out Twitter and even temporarily blocked it. However, civil society and opposition groups responded by using VPNs and other workarounds to virtually tunnel out of the country, and spread information about the shutdown through the hashtag TurkeyBlockedTwitter that helped end the blockage relatively quickly.
This constitutes a distributed attack on democratic discourse, through the spread of state propaganda and the diminution of opposing themes, accounts, and content.