“You are on mute”: suppressing and manipulating the digital freedom of expression

27 March 2021 – Mukesh Kapila and Diana Arachi

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

It was Aristotle who observed that human beings are social animals, and modern neuroscience has validated that we are “wired to connect“ through the evolution of  our complex social behaviours.

Thus, it is not surprising that a staggering 4.2  billion of us i.e. more than half the world, are active social media users. Never before in history have so many connected across the ether to share their news and views, truths or falsities, fears and foibles, likes or dislikes, passions and prejudices, and their wisdoms or follies on all matters, whether of earth-shattering importance or of mind-numbing banality.

In a very real sense, everyone on the internet is able to influence everyone else, and to be influenced in return. This is due not just to expanding connectivity but also to the gargantuan quantities of data – 40,000 zettabytes in 2019 – that are easily and widely available to inform or misinform us.  Our world is now largely shaped and controlled – for better or worse – by the information we produce, consume, manipulate, and share.

Social media platforms are vast focus groups.  Despite their inherent biases, they provide important insights into public opinion. Unsurprisingly then that media and market research companies have turned their analytical functions into ‘social listening’ posts, generating insights into why waves of public interest or dissent occur. Media intelligence companies such as Streem and Storyful use sophisticated software to understand what news and brands do well. They understand the nuances of clickbait headlines, contextual wording, news timing, and audience reception. Governments are adopting the same techniques to record the ever-changing and varying depths of public sentiment, or to silence emergent waves of opposition.

The list of the world most censored countries is topped by Eritrea followed by North Korea, Turkmenistan, and several others. Across the listed countries, similarities become evident. Countries with high restrictions on freedom of speech have media and internet platforms that are tightly controlled by a combination of government, military, or influential families. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace  reports a correlation between the military spend of countries and artificial intelligence surveillance expenditure.

Many countries witnessing partial or full social media shutdowns are also countries where a persistent climate of fear and persecution exists not only during crises but also at other times.  For example, the white van abductions  of journalists and protesters in Sri Lanka lingered long after the civil war ended in 2009. Journalist killings in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Eritrea, and India to name a few, are not uncommon.

Moving beyond state or private news channels, social media platforms provide some space, although precarious, for expressing views and sharing pictures and videos, thereby enabling the creation of many types of movements, particularly among youth. The Arab Spring e-revolution or Southern India’s Pro-Jallikattu protests are but a few examples of popular mobilisation facilitated by sharing messages on Facebook or forwarding calls for action on WhatsApp.

What are the future prospects for such social media movements?  Since 2015, internet shutdowns have increased across many countries.  Authoritarian regimes have quickly cottoned-on that it is much easier to flick the internet’s off-switch or block troublesome sharing apps, compared with the effort, expense, and bad PR associated with the brutal squashing of street protests.  

Thus, internet shutdowns and bandwidth throttling have become so common as to be almost routine. There were at least 155 internet shutdowns in 2020. India is something of a world champion in this regard having to contend with a turbulent Kashmir and sundry other discontent movements. Myanmar holds the record for the longest shutdown as part of its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.  Belarus, Ethiopia, and Yemen, mired in their own internal conflicts, were among the 29 countries that instrumentalised the internet in this way. These nations make the political calculation that the high economic costs of internet shutdowns are worth bearing. It is doubtful that they are moved by knowing that this cost is borne mostly by the poor and marginalised who increasingly depend on internet access to make their modest living. Furthermore, with hundreds of millions cut off from digital knowledge and assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic, internet shutdowns cost lives.

Freedom of expression including speech is an established fundamental human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and codified under various international covenants and domestic laws. But is internet access to realise the freedom of expression in the modern digital world also a basic human right? While global norms are shifting in that direction, the debate is not settled. So, countries can continue to flick the internet switch on and off at will. Every time that the switch is off, there is high chance that an atrocity is being committed somewhere, a human right egregiously abused, or a societal justice entrenched – with the silenced internet guaranteeing cover-up and impunity.

Meanwhile, the 2019  Freedom on the Net report suggests that nearly 3 billion internet users worldwide are already under systematic monitoring. Sophisticated listening and surveillance tools have made the expression of critical opinions increasingly risky. IT-savvy citizens in repressive countries accessing microblogging platforms such as Twitter and Reddit may be  tracked down, and suffer physical intimidation or worse if they catch the attention of specialised vigilantes such as Vietnam’s 10,000-strong  Cyberarmy Force 47.  

Going beyond blocking the internet or certain social apps is the intentional manipulation of what news reaches citizens in which form. China has taken this to a whole different level inspired by a saying of its former supremo Deng Xiaoping: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”.  So, to protect its citizens from unauthorised influences, it created the Golden Shield, and then the  Great Firewall  of China that blocks international critique of China more effectively than the Great Wall kept out physical invaders.  This is supplemented by its Great Cannon with cyber-offensive capabilities through ‘distributed denial of service attacks’ to take down information providers that offend Beijing.   Also riding to the charge are China’s  Wolf Warriors who  go beyond content suppression to actively promoting dis-information and conspiracy theories, thereby sowing doubt and confusion among geo-political competitors.

A recent example of skilful social media use by the Chinese authorities was the spreading of its own preferred but scientifically discredited narratives on the origins of the coronavirus.  Earlier, it had silenced Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who used an online chat group of medical colleagues to warn about the emerging pandemic, and subsequently died from Covid-19. Courageous Chinese journalists using social media to inform the public have been disappeared or jailed such as hunger-striking Zhang Zhan who got four years for the colourful charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” i.e. using social media to document and livestream her investigations. 

The irony is that many of the Western social media used by Chinese authorities to project their image abroad are not available or highly restricted within China.   Furthermore, many app providers in China are required by law to incorporate government filters that snoop on users.

China has pioneered a path that other authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, are only too eager – and increasingly technologically capable – of following. Chinese companies, and especially market-leader Huawei, are at the forefront of supplying AI surveillance technology but American, European, and Israeli companies also do profitable business. Popular technologies include facial recognition systems, smart city platforms, and policing tools.

Even the more democratic countries are dragged along the path of social media restrictions. This is justified by the greater good argument of protecting the public from harm by cracking down on misinformation (false or inaccurate information spread unintentionally) and disinformation (false or inaccurate information spread intentionally to deceive). This is exemplified by the debate around Covid-19 ‘antivaxxers’ and, previously, the eviction of ex-President Trump from his Twitter platform which was considered dubious even by his critics.

The new war on  fake news poses huge dilemmas for democracies, and especially those leaders with barely concealed authoritarian streaks who preside over fractious, highly-polarised publics. They are tempted to label any, even mildly differing opinion, as mis- or dis-information that threatens public well-being or national security and must, therefore, be closed down with increasingly draconian means. 

Countries with traditionally generous provisions for freedoms of press and speech are tightening up their “prosecutable offences” clauses to justify content removal of anything that could incite terrorism, defamation, slander, promote hatred or racism.  While there are few who would defend these incitements, the clauses leave open for interpretation what constitutes a prosecutable offence. So, there is ample room for creating new laws around permissible censorship, scrutiny and surveillance to suit any political mindset that happens to be in power.  Even countries with solidly respectable reputations like Germany are criticised  for new social media laws that are ‘over-broad’ and set  dangerous precedents to restrict online speech through, for example, forcing companies to censor on behalf of governments. The perverse outcome of such approaches is that of further empowering unelected commercial entities such as Twitter’s Oversight Board  and legitimising Facebook’s secret guidelines.  There is at least a debate to be had on which censorship is more acceptable: whether by China’s authoritarian but legitimate government, or by liberal but self-appointed Silicon Valley judges? 

The answers may already be emerging. The mainstream citizenry of China which has grown up knowing little else, is willing to tolerate freedom-of-expression- and-internet restrictions in return for rising prosperity (except for marginalised minorities such as the Uyghurs whose repressive ‘re-education’ is still work in progress). Meanwhile, the mainstream liberal citizenry of the West is increasingly conflicted as seen in the Trump Twitter debate. They hold freedom-of-expression and an open internet to be sacrosanct but not necessarily for all. Thus we see the toxic polarisation  of the ‘woke’  debates around Black Lives Matter or the anti-colonial movement’s toppling of statues of historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, or Cecil Rhodes. This is also seen in public health where those who speak against stringent Covid-19 lockdowns are pilloried, or in the growth of the “cancel culture” targeting writers or academics who dare to contradict fashionable social movements. 

Where will this creeping intolerance take us?  In the age of Zoom, we have become familiar with the courteous use of the mute button in conversations so as to allow everyone to be heard clearly.  But when the button is used perversely or whimsically to mute some or all of us, the scope for meaningful conversation diminishes.

A world that is muted in this way is an increasingly dangerous one.  

Published by Mukesh Kapila

See http://www.mukeshkapila.org

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