Internet Freedom Election Monitor | Freedom House

A project of Freedom on the Net

Elections and internet censorship often go hand in hand. As citizens head to the polls, repressive governments limit access to information, and in the most extreme cases, cut off internet service entirely. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project has estimated the risk of restrictions on internet freedom during upcoming elections in selected countries.

Americas

  • Brazil

    October 2018

    General Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There was a medium risk of further internet restrictions around Brazil's October 7 elections and October 28 presidential runoff, particularly surrounding "fake news."

    • Fake News: As concerns about the proliferation of false information, particularly on WhatsApp, surged in the lead-up to the 2018 general elections, several initiatives and legislative proposals emerged to tackle these practices. With some 10 draft bills appearing in the first four months of 2018 alone, proposals seeking to criminalize the dissemination of fake news sparked freedom of expression and censorship concerns. Brazil's Superior Electoral Court even warned that the elections could be annulled if results were found to be heavily influenced by such practices. In July 2018, Facebook reportedly removed a network of pages and accounts that were "spreading misinformation."
    • Content Removal: The Electoral Law limits publication of content deemed "injurious" to candidates during electoral periods. During the 2014 general elections, the law was used to justify almost 200 lawsuits and a number of content removal requests. Under a December 2017 resolution, the electoral court can order platforms to remove online content relaying information "known to be untrue" about candidates. In the 2018 elections, the Superior Electoral Court responded to numerous content removal requests; less than 12% of cases involved false information.
    • Harassment and Violence: Online journalists and bloggers have been subjected to harassment and, in some cases, violence. Those investigating local corruption scandals have been especially at risk. At least three journalists, including one who worked online, were killed in 2018. These troubling trends threatened freedom of expression and an incrase in self-censorship among media and internet users alike. Many journalists reported being harassed online in the period leading up to the elections.
    Read more about internet freedom in Brazil.
  • United States

    November 2018

    Parliamentary Elections

    Low Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Free

    Analysis

    With a third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives up for election, in addition to state and local offices, the online sphere was again a partisan battleground. While there was a low risk that the government would impose any restrictions on the internet ahead of the midterm elections on November 6, disinformation, technical attacks, and online harassment impacted online freedom.

    • Disinformation: Disinformation campaigns, traced back to Russia, Iran, and China, have sought to divide and create conflict among Americans, leading to both Facebook and Twitter removing over 600 pages and accounts. Both platforms have also identified and removed over 800 pages and accounts run by American citizens that were fraudulent or intentionally spreading disinformation. These efforts, whether originating domestically or abroad, risk undermining confidence in the American electoral process and, at their worst, impacting election outcomes.
    • Technical Attacks: Concerns over Russian cyberespionage and electoral interference have reemerged. In August 2018, Microsoft disabled six phony websites targeting conservative think tanks and Senate staff. The sites were created by Russian hacking group Fancy Bear and were apparently designed for a spear-phishing campaign. In July, two Senators were also targeted by spear-phishing attacks believed to have originated in Russia.
    • Harassment and Violence: Journalists, activists, and internet users face increased threats and harassment on online platforms. The Trump administration continues to disparage journalists using derogatory or threatening language, and in one instance even praised a sitting congressman for assaulting a Guardian reporter. One form of intimidation targeting journalists is “doxxing,” when users publish journalists’ personal information without their consent. Marginalized communities are also at risk for increased harassment and threats online, including immigrants, LGBTI people, Muslims, and people of color. Online harassment remains one of the driving forces behind self-censorship and undermines users’ ability to exercise their right to free expression.
    Read more about internet freedom in United States.

Asia-Pacific

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Bangladesh

    January 2019

    Parliamentary Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There was a high risk of further internet restrictions around Bangladesh’s December 30 elections, in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s coalition captured all but 12 of the contested parliamentary seats.

    • Connectivity Restrictions: Ahead of the elections, the government reduced 4G and 3G networks to 2G under the guise of preventing the spread of disinformation.
    • Blocking and Content Removal: The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ordered the blocking of 54 online news outlets for disseminating anti-government content and “fake news.” Social media platforms were also blocked. The government reportedly moved to monitor social media and remove content spreading disinformation or inciting violence ahead of the elections.
    • Disinformation: Facebook and Twitter removed at least 45 accounts and pages spreading progovernmet disinformation. The accounts were reportedly connected to the government.
    • Arrests and Prosecutions: In the months leading up to the elections, thousands of opposition activists were reportedly arrested on politicized charges. The new draconian Digital Security Act, which includes vague and overly broad components, was used to arrest a journalist who reported on election irregularities.
    Read more about internet freedom in Bangladesh.
  • Cambodia

    July 2018

    Parliamentary Elections

    High Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    Restrictions on internet freedom intensified around the July 29 elections, as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party retained its 40-year grip on power.

    • Censorship: The government ramped up restrictions on digital media starting in 2016. Authorities recently released a list of controversial guidelines for journalists covering the elections and passed a directive to penalize those accused of posting “fake news” online with up to five years in prison.
    • Arrests: Opposition politicians have been charged and jailed for content posted on Facebook. Cambodia’s recently implemented lèse-majesté law is an additional avenue for arrests based on legitimate online activity.
    • Harassment: Political activists, opposition members, and civil society organizations also face cyberattacks and smear campaigns.
    Read more about internet freedom in Cambodia.
  • India

    April - May 2019

    General Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    India, the world’s second largest online market, will begin its general election on April 11, with 900 million people expected to vote for candidates for the 17th Lok Sabha.

    • Disinformation: In an environment where false online content has previously sparked real-world violence, disinformation is again proliferating ahead of the general election. Both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Indian National Congress have been linked to fraudulent or misleading pages and accounts. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter are working to counteract the impact of disinformation by labeling political advertisements, removing fraudulent accounts and pages, and collaborating with local fact-checkers and election authorities.
    • Harassment: Frequent trolling and violent threats against journalists, women, and activists have created a hostile online environment for voters criticizing the government and its leaders. Aggressive online commentators who self-identify as Hindu nationalists routinely abuse their opponents. Some of the abusive behavior has reportedly been orchestrated by employees of the BJP.
    • Legal Environment: The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has proposed new rules that give the government broader power to request the removal of online content and that require “intermediaries” to proactively filter out “unlawful information or content.” The rules also mandate that content hosts know from whom messages originated, undermining end-to-end encryption. The government has suggested its wishes to pass the new rules ahead of the election, although this timeline seems unlikely given opposition from diverse stakeholders.
    Read more about internet freedom in India.
  • Thailand

    March 2019

    General Elections

    High Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Not Free

    Analysis

    After repeated postponements, Thailand held general elections on March 24, the first vote since high-ranking military officers effected a coup d’etat in 2014 and instituted themselves as the National Council for Peace and Order. With the junta trying to maintain its tight grip on power, there was a high risk of further internet restrictions in a tightly controlled election environment.

    • Arrests: Criminal prosecution is one of the junta’s main strategies to combat opposition. Using the repressive Computer Related Crime Act (CCA), at least five people have reportedly been charged for allegedly sharing false information, endangering national security, and defaming officials around the election. The popular leader of the newly formed Future Forward party is facing CCA charges for “uploading false information” after criticizing the junta on Facebook. Lèse majesté charges could also be brought against internet users for election-related online speech.
    • Censorship: Recognizing the effectiveness of digital campaigning, the country's Election Commission released in January strict guidelines that limit opposition parties’ use of social media. Parties must register social media pages or be subjected to fines and prison terms. There are also limitations to what can be posted and “liked,” and penalties for defamation or spreading “false information.” Some candidates have opted to delete their accounts to avoid violating the guidelines.
    • Content Removal: The Election Commission has the power to order the removal of social media content. The commission has reportedly requested that platforms, including Facebook, remove a range of posts for containing false or defamatory content.

    For more on internet restrictions around Thailand's election, read "Taking No Chances, Thailand's Junta Locks Down the Internet ahead of Elections" via Just Security.

    Read more about internet freedom in Thailand.

Eurasia

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Georgia

    October 2018

    Presidential Election

    Low Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Free

    Analysis

    There was a low risk of internet restrictions ahead of Georgia’s presidential election on October 27, the last time voters directly elected the president (due to 2017 constitutional amendments).

    • Online Media: The online media environment is free and unrestricted. However, Freedom House identified an increased risk of partisan content online, as a number of online media outlets, some of which demonstrate political bias, coordinated informally to disseminate news.
    • Harassment and Violence: There was an increased risk of online harassment targeting journalists and activists ahead of the election -- particularly, harassment perpetrated by far-right and nationalist groups. Though rare, isolated cases of violence against online journalists have occurred in the past.
    Read more about internet freedom in Georgia.
  • Ukraine

    March 2019

    Presidential Election

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    Ukraine held the first round of a presidential election—its second since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity—on March 31. As voters prepared to head to the polls, there was a medium risk of further internet restrictions.

    • Blockings: Ukrainian government officials, citing national security concerns, have announced their intention to block hundreds of Russian-owned or -linked websites ahead of the March 31 vote. Some Russian sites, including Yandex and the social media platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, have remained blocked since 2017.
    • Disinformation: Ukraine’s Security Service has exposed numerous election-related Russian disinformation campaigns, primarily on Facebook, mainly aimed against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and current frontrunner Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In response, Facebook has removed hundreds of bogus accounts and instituted new advertising rules.
    • Technical Attacks: The Central Election Commission has suffered both DDoS and phishing attacks, many of which have been linked to the Kremlin. Ukrainian civil society groups have also been targeted, although the origin of these attacks is not known.
    • Online Media Environment: Editorial interference from Ukrainian oligarchs, political ads masquerading as journalism, and the domestic use of online bots have contributed to a polarized and unreliable online mediascape.

    For more about internet restrictions around Ukraine's election, read "In Ukraine, Free Elections Must Go Hand-in-Hand with Internet Freedom" in Freedom House's blog.

    Read more about internet freedom in Ukraine.

Europe

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Estonia

    March 2019

    Parliamentary elections

    Low Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Free

    Analysis

    There was a low risk of interest restrictions in the lead-up to the March 3 parliamentary elections in Estonia, home to one of the world’s most free online environments.

    • Disinformation: In January, Facebook removed several Estonia-focused pages linked to Sputnik, the Kremlin-backed news agency, for propagating misleading information relating to NATO, protest movements, and corruption. The media advisor to Estonia's electoral committee noted that “minor” Facebook content attempted to influence the outcome of the vote.
    • Technical Attacks: Uniquely, all Estonian citizens have the option to vote online through the country’s secure “i-voting” system. In the past, cybersecurity experts have warned that the system is vulnerable to hacking. However, no breaches or other incidents have occured since i-voting came into use circa 2005.
    • Intimidation and Harassment: Election-time debates over migration, same-sex marriage, the country’s Estonian-Russian ethnic divide, and other issues contributed to a sometimes-charged online environment, with isolated death threats appearing on social media.
    Read more about internet freedom in Estonia.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Nigeria

    February 2019

    Gubernatorial and State Assembly Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There was a medium risk of further internet restrictions around Nigeria's March 9 elections. The vote was originally scheduled for March 2, but was delayed along with the February presidential elections due to logisitical and operational challenges.

    • Disinformation and Misinformation: False content online has proliferated recently. In addition, some campaigns have employed individuals to manage fake Twitter accounts to boost their image and smear opponents.
    • Blocking: A recent increase in technical censorship suggests that the government may be more likely to block politically sensitive websites, although the practice is not widespread.
    • Intimidation and Harassment: Election-related tensions risk exacerbating the routine harassment faced by individuals sharing critical commentary online about politicians or powerful businesspeople. The government also has threatened journalists and activists with arrest, while the police have raided the homes of bloggers.
    • Connectivity Restrictions: The government does not routinely impose restrictions on connectivity and the decentralized backbone connection to the international internet provides some protection against government interference. However, a number of internet and social media restrictions in the region create a concerning environment ahead of the elections.
    Read more about internet freedom in Nigeria.
  • Rwanda

    September 2018

    Parliamentary Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There was a medium risk of further restrictions to internet freedom around Rwanda’s September 2 parliamentary elections, continuing the government’s trend of repressing online activity.  

    • Harassment: Government critics and online journalists face intimidation and harassment from progovernment social media users, including a so-called “Twitter Army.”  Such tactics also proliferated ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
    • Blocking: The government restricts access to critical and independent content by blocking a number of websites and news outlets produced locally, regionally, and internationally.
    • Legal framework: Numerous vague laws may be used to silence and surveil critics. There are laws against insulting officials or police; drawing cartoons ridiculing government officials or the military; and disseminating “grossly offensive” or indecent” messages as well as the use of ICTs to cause “annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety.” The government monitors the telecommunications of individuals considered potential threats to “public security.”
    • Self-censorship: Online news outlets often avoid political, social, or critical topics for fear of government retribution. Self-censorship is so prevalent that despite a range of restrictive criminal laws, arrests for online comments are relatively infrequent.
    Read more about internet freedom in Rwanda.
  • Zimbabwe

    By July 2018

    General Elections

    High Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There was a high risk of further internet restrictions around Zimbabwe’s July 30 elections, the first since the end of Robert Mugabe’s 30-year presidency.

    • Shutdowns: Access to WhatsApp was disabled during antigovernment protests in July 2016. After service was unblocked, the government temporarily hiked the cost of mobile data plans by 500 percent to limit civic organizing.
    • Arrests: Individuals have been routinely arrested for expressing political opinions online, including a pastor for criticizing the government over fuel shortages on Facebook, and at least four people for posting “falsehoods or hate speech” on social media.
    • Cyberattacks: Voter information held by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was reportedly taken by hackers in July and published online. Around the same time, Zimbabweans received unsolicited texts from the ruling ZANU-PF party.
    • Fake News: ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC used social media to attack one another and to share misleading images. Fake news was also employed to question the integrity of the electoral commission.
    Read more about internet freedom in Zimbabwe.

Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images