Unregulated online content has spread disinformation and propaganda that have amplified political divisions, fanned international tensions and even contributed to Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine, a media watchdog said on Tuesday.

Reporters Without Borders, widely known by its French acronym RSF, presented its findings in the 2022 edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index.

Democratic societies, it said, are increasingly fractured by social media spreading disinformation and media pursuing a “Fox News model”, referring to the controversial US right-wing television network.

Autocratic regimes meanwhile tightly control information within their societies, using their leveraged position to wage “propaganda wars” against democracies and fuel divisions within them.

Such polarisation is becoming more “extreme,” worldwide, RSF’s director of operations and campaigns Rebecca Vincent told a news conference in London.

She pointed to the deaths of journalists in the Netherlands and Greece as well as the case of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who risks extradition and trial in the US for the publication of secret files.

The report showed how Russia, where state-run media overwhelmingly dominates and independent outlets are largely stifled, waged a propaganda war before its military offensive in Ukraine.

Evgeniya Dillendorf, a correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said the main reason for lack of media diversity in Russia “is not pressure but lack of independent business which would finance it, and the lack of independent judicial system that would defend it”.

Novaya Gazeta has suspended publication for the duration of Moscow’s military intervention to avoid being shut down.

“The creation of media weaponry in authoritarian countries eliminates their citizens’ right to information but is also linked to the rise in international tension, which can lead to the worst kind of wars,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

The “Fox News-isation” of Western media also posed a “fatal danger for democracies because it undermines the basis of civil harmony and tolerant public debate”, he added.

Deloire urged countries to adopt legal frameworks to protect democratic online information spaces.