Report: election wave will bring tsunami of internet shutdowns

Elections have a history of triggering increased internet restrictions in some countries. With citizens voting in 90 countries this year, this is bound to happen again, a new report says.

Surfshark's Research Hub has published an analysis detailing the countries that have been imposing internet restrictions during elections since 2015, and it forecasts those at risk of doing so in 2024.

The obvious suspects are, of course, states where internet access is regularly restricted prior to and during elections. Such restrictions compromise the integrity and fairness of the vote by enabling governments to exert greater control over the public narrative.

In 2024, elections are taking place in countries that are home to half the world’s population and represent 60% of global GDP. People in the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and India will all vote this year.

Among the 90 countries gearing up for elections in 2024, 12 have a history of imposing restrictions on internet services during election times.

Since 2015, a significant 75% of these interventions involved severing network connectivity, Surshark says in its report. This tactic does more than just mute online conversations – it disrupts the flow of information essential for transparent electoral processes.

Other measures have included social media blackouts, which hinder citizens' ability to communicate, organize, and voice their objections. Some governments block certain content, too.

"We've discovered that countries with a history of internet blackouts during elections score an average of just 32 out of 100 on the global freedom scale. As a reminder, this scale measures personal, civil, and economic freedoms,” says Agneska Sablovskaja, lead researcher at Surfshark.

“32 is significantly below the worldwide average of 58. This suggests a strong connection between digital censorship and wider violations of freedom."

More specifically, election-related internet censorship has been prevalent in Sub-Saharan Asia and Southern Asia, a region where the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh will vote this year.

Beginning in 2022, Pakistan has seen a series of internet clampdowns, with all incidents aimed at stifling the activities surrounding the opposition party and its leader, Imran Khan.

However, the spring season will pose significant challenges for countries that are neighbors to Pakistan, such as India and Iran. These states have also been targeting content on social media or messaging services.

Finally, Belarus is also stepping into the election arena with its upcoming parliamentary elections.

“The country's latest presidential election was significantly affected by extensive internet disruptions and the strategic blocking of social media channels, particularly X – a vital platform for political participation and societal dialogue,” says Surfshark.

Classic restrictions are not the only electoral challenges in 2024. Just recently, the World Economic Forum’s “Global Risks Report 2024” warned that generative artificial intelligence tools could help disrupt politics via the spread of false information.

In response, OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, said it will launch tools to fight disinformation ahead of this year’s voting marathon. The company will also ban the use of its tech for political campaigns.