For years before the recent uprising against authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir, Sudanese girls had shared pictures of their romantic crushes in a Facebook group dedicated to digging up dirt on local boys—a sort of crowdsourced background check. But as security agents escalated their crackdown on the nascent anti-government protest movement in September 2018, the network mobilised to identify and deter abuses by state security personnel. “You can post any photo for any person of the National Intelligence and Security Service,” said Azaz Elshami, an activist in the Sudanese diaspora, “and they will give you who he is, where he lives, his mobile number, family, all that.” The process was so effective that agents of the much-feared NISS had to wear masks in public to avoid identification.
However, it became clear during the protests that the same digital tools could be manipulated by the government to spread disinformation. In January, when Sudanese police used live ammunition against the demonstrators, a news site maintained by the Sudanese diaspora reported the death of three individuals, including 16-year-old Mohamed al-Obeid. Local journalists rapidly shared his image on social media, and it soon spread to international media outlets. As activists attempted to ascertain more details about the boy’s identity, suspicion grew, until ultimately it became clear that the image depicted the aftermath of police violence in far-off Brazil. Sudanese activists concluded that the fraudulent image was the work of a team of NISS internet trolls known for disseminating smears and falsehoods.
“It was a trap,” one citizen journalist tweeted, “orchestrated to discredit us all.”
Sudan’s revolution, like the Arab Spring before it, has showcased both the positive and the negative potential of social media. At a time when the harmful aspects of these platforms are being exposed and debated around the world, the fact that they have also delivered vital benefits should not be forgotten. They have fostered a rise in citizen journalism and activism and allowed independent reporters to continue reaching news consumers in environments where traditional outlets have fallen under government control, and their transnational nature has provided a measure of protection against state censorship. The challenge for policymakers, technology companies, and civil society today is to prevent malicious state and nonstate actors from poisoning the digital sphere while protecting and enhancing the conditions and qualities that allow the internet to bolster media freedom and advance democracy.
The Internet as a refuge for media diversity
Almost from its inception, the Internet offered new media spaces unspoiled by government intrusion. Blogs, online news outlets, and social media platforms provided alternatives to progovernment television, radio, and print outlets. Even in a place as repressive as Saudi Arabia, liberal poets challenged religious dogma, and young bloggers chronicled the mental gymnastics of embracing foreign pop culture while upholding Saudi customs. This ballooning of freedom was eventually deflated by state authorities who cracked down on critical thinking and “un-Islamic” ideas.
While individuals in many countries remain uninhibited in their ability to publish facts and opinions, they may face punishment for what they publish—freedom of speech does not always extend to freedom after speech.
Nonetheless, in countries facing drastic and sudden declines in press freedom, the internet can be an important redoubt. Almost 150 news outlets have been closed in Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt, with hundreds of journalists facing spurious charges of supporting terrorism. As a result, many media professionals have moved online. Prominent journalist Ünsal Ünlü runs a podcast from his home office, while start-ups like Dokuz8 are testing new models of digital-first reporting. Those who have been forced to leave Turkey altogether, such as Yavuz Baydar and Can Dündar, have broadcast independent news from overseas on new platforms like Ahval and Özgürüz. Though officially blocked, their coverage remains accessible on most social media services and via virtual private networks (VPNs) that enable users to skirt government censorship.
Meanwhile, governments around the world have continued to extend strict press laws and audio-visual codes to the online realm in an attempt to bring online media to heel. A bill now under consideration in Pakistan, whose press freedom environment is highly restricted, would impose a licensing regime on online journalists and news outlets. Authorities in Uganda in March 2018 issued new requirements obliging online publishers, news platforms, and radio operators to obtain authorization from the country’s Communications Commission. Amendments to Belarus’s Media Law in December 2018 expanded the definition of traditional media to include online outlets and related websites, resulting in the blocking of several independent news sites that had enjoyed relative editorial freedom. In Egypt, similar legislation adopted in August 2018 has provided a legal basis for blocking dozens of websites belonging to human rights organizations and news outlets. The upstart Mada Masr, a progressive news site created by young journalists who were pushed out of Egypt Independent in 2013, was among the targets.
International platforms as a buffer against censorship
While many local governments are clearly intolerant of an unfettered online news sector, major international technology platforms serve as an important buffer against such censorial tendencies. Mada Masr, for example, continues to post content directly to its Facebook page, while Turkey’s Medyascope runs a YouTube channel.
Due the rollout of strong encryption technology by most companies, governments can no longer order internet service providers to bar access to specific content within a tech platform, such as an individual account or group page. This has resulted in a growing imbalance between large tech companies and many governments, which must persuade executives or administrators based overseas to remove a given post. Many US-based companies deliberately refrain from setting up operations in more repressive countries where their employees could face punishment for failing to adhere to a government request that would violate the human rights of their local users.
Perhaps the most powerful media tool provided by such international platforms is live streaming. The feature is now built into many mobile applications and social media services, allowing anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection to double as an amateur television crew with global reach. Particularly in countries where leaders or political factions dispute facts on the ground, live streaming provides a higher degree of credibility than any other media form. Unlike with a news article or photograph, it is difficult to dispute the timing, location, and creator of a live stream. The format is also highly transparent and interactive. Anyone watching a live stream can type questions or comments that are automatically superimposed within the video for all to see, including the streamers themselves, who often respond to comments in real time.
Bloggers and journalists in Belarus and Armenia have used Facebook Live and other live-streaming services to challenge the government’s claims on the size or goal of anti-government protests, and to document security forces’ often heavy-handed response. In Venezuela, activist media start-ups like Efecto Cocuyo (“Firefly Effect”) use the live-streaming platform Periscope to provide an alternative to the dominant progovernment news outlets. Their journalists cover press conferences by opposition figures, the proceedings of local legislatures, and large protests that state media equate with armed riots or refuse to acknowledge.
More traditional media players in democracies have engaged in their own experiments along these lines. Public broadcasters from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States teamed up to develop a Turkish-language news channel that will air exclusively on YouTube. The stated goal of the channel, +90, is to “provide independent and accurate information that promotes free speech and a multitude of perspectives on current affairs.” Since it is based overseas, Turkish authorities upset over its coverage would need to convince the Silicon Valley–based hosting company to censor a US government–funded news service.
But international social media platforms are not exactly immune from government pressure. In Vietnam, a one-party state where the authorities maintain a tight grip on information flows, a network of democratic activists based inside and outside the country run a Facebook page that provides an independent take on the repressive regime to some 1.3 million followers. While Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in congressional testimony that the company refrains from establishing a physical presence in repressive countries in order avoid complying with political censorship, the platform did remove at least seven stories from the activist group in question, Việt Tân, in early May, citing “local legal restrictions.” The posts covered the health condition of Vietnam’s president at a time when the authorities had issued a strict media blackout on the subject. Reuters “broke” a story on the president’s illness over 10 days after Việt Tân had initially covered it.
Activists in autocratic countries are concerned that companies like Facebook could move toward complying more consistently with government orders for financial or legal reasons. Vietnam recently passed a cybersecurity law, closely modelled on China’s, which requires companies to store data about Vietnamese users on servers located within the country.
If major international platforms were to obey, the private communications of local users would be within the reach of Vietnamese security agencies, who consider nonviolent political activism to be a threat to national security. Already, Việt Tân has been branded a terrorist organization for its insistence on peaceful democratic reform away from one-party rule.
There is a dark side to the freedom that digital media offer. To the extent that various online platforms and applications have created an information space beyond anyone’s authoritative control, malicious state and nonstate actors are exploiting it to advance their respective agendas.
If you cannot censor them, exploit them
The messaging service WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is a case in point. Unlike Facebook proper and Twitter, where the default privacy setting for users is “public,” WhatsApp messages are designed for more private communications. They are end-to-end encrypted, meaning not even the company itself has access to them, only the intended recipients.
Administrators of group chats must “invite” new participants, ensuring a degree of vetting. Thus in the dozens of countries where WhatsApp usage is high, large swathes of the online media landscape have become, effectively, hidden from view.
These qualities—increased trust and decreased transparency—have been used by malevolent actors to deepen social divisions and even illegally influence elections. In the 65 countries covered by Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report, 32 had instances in which paid progovernment commentators intervened on social media, including WhatsApp, usually to smear the political opposition or critical journalists.
In Brazil, an investigation by the newspaper Folha revealed that business groups had illegally contributed to the successful 2018 campaign of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro by funding some $3 million in mass messages on WhatsApp. The groups also collected phone numbers through a third-party service, which is prohibited under the country’s electoral laws.
In India, where doctored images and fake news abounded on various platforms during the April–May general elections, Facebook announced that it had removed over 1,000 pages for violating policies on spam and “coordinated inauthentic behaviour.” Political parties circulate propaganda and misleading claims about one another, religious minorities, and critical journalists. Hindu nationalists in particular have grown adept at spreading false rumours that characterize opposition parties as favouring Muslims over the general population. The so-called cyber army of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party claims to have 1.2 million volunteers.
Tech platforms may also be weaponized by religious and ethnic extremists to incite violence against minorities. In the aftermath of the Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka this year, the country’s authorities blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber as a precaution against further violence. False information about the attackers’ identities and potential additional attacks had already begun to spread on social media.
But blocking access to communication tools is a blunt and ultimately ineffective instrument for stemming disinformation and other false news, which can continue to spread via word of mouth and even mainstream media; social media, meanwhile, can be useful in debunking erroneous reports. For example, in Sri Lanka the authorities disseminated a photo of a woman on national television, alleging that she was involved in the Easter attacks. They realized only later, after internet users traced the photo to a US-based student, that it was a case of mistaken identity.
How and how not to regulate
Despite their great utility and positive potential in repressive environments, online media and major technology companies in particular have come under harsh criticism for their management—or failure to manage—problems like disinformation, hate speech, and incitement to violence, all of which threaten the fabric of democratic societies. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been accused in the United States of colluding to censor conservatives, while European policymakers and the public at large are pushing back against the perceived ways in which tech platforms have disrupted the media ecosystem. A survey of 27 countries around the globe found that trust in social media was lowest in North America and Europe, where distorted online content has been credited with aiding the rise of right-wing populist demagogues.
The best remedy for bad or erroneous speech remains more and better speech, not enforced silence. Yet on today’s online platforms, undemocratic and illiberal actors seem to have a louder megaphone. Studies have shown that dubious information intended to spark outrage gains greater visibility on social media than more sober, truthful content. The platforms’ own algorithms appear designed to amplify content that generates high levels of engagement, even if the result is a rush to ever greater extremes. These dynamics mean that content disseminated by a very small but coordinated and radical network of individuals or accounts—including those orchestrated by undemocratic parties or regimes—can easily overshadow the views of the more moderate majority.
In light of these and other problems, the technology sector does need greater regulation. But defenders of democracy should be wary of any push for state regulation that aims to define acceptable and unacceptable speech and entails a reduction in freedom of expression. It is instructive that the very governments most guilty of pumping out misleading propaganda and surreptitiously manipulating social media through paid trolls and automated “bot” accounts are often the ones that propose to solve the problem by restricting civil liberties.
Instead, governments should find other ways to improve companies’ performance. Policymakers could establish independent multi-stakeholder bodies to evaluate companies’ content moderation practices for transparency, proportionality, and the effectiveness of appeal processes. Such bodies can also set minimum standards for the detection and elimination of coordinated inauthentic activity, such as paid trolls and bot accounts, as well as guidelines for political advertising during election campaigns. In addition, public officials should regulate other aspects of the sector through the lens of antitrust laws and privacy protections, since they have important consequences for freedom of expression in a democracy. The overarching goal of such regulation should be to protect and augment the constructive role that online communication platforms can play in all societies.
Social media are a crucial part of the modern media ecosystem. They dramatically expand access to information and freedom of expression, and in repressive and troubled countries they remain a lifeline to journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens attempting to exercise their democratic rights. Rather than surrendering these services to the malevolent forces that have exploited their weaknesses, democracies must fight back in a way that is consistent with their own long-standing values. (Agencies)