Democracy Requires A Democratic Internet

The Internet Can be Both a Tool for Realizing Human Rights, or for Empowering Dictatorships

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ICNHR – It is a long-established fact that the freedom of individuals to seek out accurate and unbiased information is a predicate for a democratic society. The guarantee of freedom of the press is thus coupled with freedom of speech in all major human rights documents, from the American Constitution’s First Amendment and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dictatorial regimes throughout history have always required a domination over information, through both censorship and the dissemination of propaganda, to maintain their ability to control the thoughts of their subjects. From the medieval papacy’s index of forbidden books, to the Nazi and Soviet state’s well-known information control programs, to the practices of dictatorships in our time, like those of China, North Korea, and Iran, the story has always been the same.

Over the past years, a new tool has emerged that can both advance and retard the evolution of democracy: The Internet. Having the means to virtually communicate with others around the globe, across closed borders and beyond the reach of security forces, has enabled everyday people to work together via shared platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, to fight back against oppressive elites. The number of revolutions that were initiated online are many, just in the last year, we saw social media help commence mass protests in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. The November 2019 Iranian uprising offers a key testimony as to the power of the Internet, for the Khomeinist dictatorship’s first action to suppress the uprising was to shut down the Internet, which not only blocked Iranians from communicating with each other, but also stopped from able to document the killings and mass arrests the regime was inflicting upon them. Nevertheless, the fact that some videos of the atrocities committed by the regime were able to be leaked out, with the friendly prodding and assistance of the U.S. State Department, shows that not even the most totalitarian regime is able to control the Internet and completely isolate its populace from the rest of the world.

With all the good that the Internet has done for the cause of human rights, it is, however, a double-edged sword. Dictatorships have learned to utilize social media for their own purposes. The freedom embedded within social media, where anyone can write anything and broadcast it to the globe, also allows a dictatorship to beam its propaganda without being checked. It is thus no coincidence that notorious human rights abusers, such as Russia, China, and Iran, have set up massive cyber-intelligence units to disseminate their misinformation. Additionally, taking a cue from an ancient war strategy stating that an enemy power can be weakened by causing its citizens to doubt themselves, and their cause, dictatorships have learned that they can hurt their western democratic enemies by spreading fake news-untrue articles disguised as journalism that nearly always promote some sort of “conspiracy theory” that makes democratic forces seem dishonest and malicious.

By utilizing fake news, dictatorships do not have to defend their indefensible human rights records- they can simply cause citizens of other nations to doubt what they had been told by their governments, or by mainstream media sources. The influence Russia obtained over the American political process in 2016 by the use of fake news is known to all. Less well known, but equally important, is the social media war waged by the Khomeinist regime in Iran against its rivals the USA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In waging this war, the Khomeinist regime was aided by the already strong feelings of anti-semitism and anti-Americanism that had been sowed for decades by other dictatorships’ propaganda campaigns.

Monopoly capitalism and the market have also aided dictatorships to disseminate their poison. As social media platforms are run by private corporations seeking to make a profit, and aren’t public resources, anyone with the money to spend on promotions or advertising can, thereby ensuring that foreign regimes with cash to spend can easily make their messaging go viral. Thus, people who have turned to social media as their primary news source on account of the, often-apparent, political biases of mainstream media sources (for example, CNN, the BBC, or Fox News), are ironically exposed to news that, driven by the profit motive of the platform’s owner and the propaganda motive of the ad-buyers, is more slanted and counter-factual than the established print and TV sources they rightly distrusted.

A century ago, Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, proclaimed that capitalists would sell the communists “the ropes we’ll hang them with.” Today, that statement accurately describes the way technology giant corporations are aiding anti-democratic regimes destroy the very system that enabled social media to be created. This problem, to many, seems to be a result of the monopoly powers that companies such as Facebook and Twitter are able to exert. Philosophers and economists, dating back to Adam Smith, have long espoused that a free market for information, where providers of information can compete with each other under conditions where the one who best supplies and satisfies the popular demand, and earns the popular trust, will become the most prosperous and successful. As Facebook and Twitter have not received any financial incentive from their customers – the users of social media – to cease their cooperation with dictatorial regime, all that can be done for now is for human rights activists and journalists to closely monitor the activities of these monopoly corporations, disclose the facts, and attempt to shame them for their callousness towards those suffering under dictatorships. While public shaming campaigns have achieved both good and bad (MeToo and the rise of cancel culture being contrasting examples), it remains a powerful means for everyday people to confront those with wealth and power.

Some analysts have suggested government regulation of cyberspace as the best method of combatting foreign propaganda and fake news. Regulation would not solve the problem, though, because, in a divisive western political environment where traditional liberals and conservatives have become polarized against each other, in the midst of challenges from resurgent populist, socialist and nationalist forces, any western political administration that attempted to regulate online journalism would be immediately perceived by the supporters of other parties as attempting to censor the truth. This, in turn, would further the goals of Russia, China, and Iran, by successfully causing westerners to doubt each other more than they doubt their enemies.

In a democracy, there will always be several, competing, equally valid opinions in regard to policies and personages. What is and what is false, however, should not be a subject for debate. As no one can trust politicians and corporate executives to be fair arbiters, it is the task of independent journalists, and human rights activists, to take the lead internationally in identifying propaganda and fake news being spread through social media, and in combatting it by disseminating accurate reporting and facts. Especially in countries like Iran, where the regime’s iron wall of censorship prevents the Iranian people from expressing themselves, it is up to international human rights journalists to be their voice, their means for expressing their lived truth.

Institute of Capacity Building for Human Rights, ICBHR. All Rights Reserved. Follow us on Twitter: @ICBHR_En

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