Nov. 5 (UPI) -- More governments than ever before are using social media to fight opposing viewpoints and spread their own propaganda, according to a new analysis by a Washington, D.C., group that tracks free speech on the Internet.
Nonprofit Freedom House said in its "Freedom on the Net 2019" report, "what was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation." The study examined a nation-by-nation comparison of Internet freedoms and concluded more governments are "titling the technology toward digital authoritarianism."
Political leaders in 38 nations, it found, have paid workers to shape online opinions over the past year.
"Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship," Freedom House President Mike Abramowitz said. "Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed the ensure free and fair elections."
Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the report notes, is a prime example -- and Iran, Saudi Arabia and China are among the most significant propaganda pushers.
Social media surveillance programs were identified in 40 of the 65 countries the report examined. In many, citizens have been arrested for political, social or religious speech.
Researchers said the onus falls on U.S. tech companies to expand efforts to curb the practice.
"The future of Internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media," researcher Adrian Shahbaz said. "Since these are mainly American platforms, the United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the Internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression."
"Advances in [artificial intelligence] are driving a booming, unregulated market for social media surveillance," he added. "Even in countries with considerable safeguards for fundamental freedoms, there are already reports of abuse."
China, according to the report, is the world's most frequent abuser of Internet freedoms, for the fourth consecutive year -- while Iceland is the most protective.
It also found online freedoms declined in the United States, as law enforcement monitors the Internet and conducts warrantless searches of electronic devices. Also, more governments are using automated "bots" and phony accounts to manipulate posts, it concluded.
"Often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business magnates, semi-autonomous online mobs transmitted conspiracy theories, inflammatory views and misleading memes from marginal echo chambers to the political mainstream," the analysis said.
Researchers said social media and communication applications were blocked by at least 20 governments and cellular networks were disrupted in 38 of the 65 countries over the past year. Such surveillance has allowed governments to map users' relationships, assign meaning to their social media posts and predict their online activities, they said.
Tuesday's report came just days after Twitter said it would ban all political advertisements, beginning this month, in an effort to stem the political overtones of the network. Facebook rolled out its News feature last month, which is designed to root out misleading or inaccurate "news" reports spread on its platform.