What happened to the Internet? Social media platforms were created as powerful tools for the ‘good’, for democratic participation, for public discourse, and for enabling anyone to have a voice. Here is what Freedom House thinks about the issue.
Freedom House is a U.S.-based, government-funded, non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. It is clearly backing official US policy of spreading and supporting western-style democracy and values around the world – something that is not championed, for obvious reasons, by everyone – far from it.
However, the organization has its own board and retains a degree of independence, employing methodologies developed by scientists in order to rate countries and regimes in terms of “fundamental freedoms”.
In 1973, Freedom House launched what is now its flagship publication, Freedom in the World – an annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties. The 2019 version of the report was recently published.
The report gives reason to pause and reflect, as it uses very strong language in terms of criticizing the negative effects of social media on the fundamental freedoms, and notably, how this is handled in the US itself.
Let me start by the following quote from the report:
“Repressive regimes, elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions, and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control.”
Social media is providing an extremely powerful and inexpensive platform for malign influence operations by foreign and domestic actors alike and Freedom House summarizes:
“In many countries, the rise of populism and far-right extremism has coincided with the growth of hyperpartisan online mobs that include both authentic users and fraudulent or automated accounts. They build large audiences around similar interests, lace their political messaging with false or inflammatory content, and coordinate its dissemination across multiple platforms.”
They stress the fact that, overall, social media is promoting illiberalism and the “illegitimization” of national and international institutions.
Freedom House is highlighting the elections in Brazil, which are described like this:
“The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s October 2018 presidential election proved a watershed moment for digital election interference in the country. Unidentified actors mounted cyberattacks against journalists, government entities, and politically engaged users, even as social media manipulation reached new heights. Supporters of Bolsonaro and his far-right “Brazil over Everything, God above Everyone” coalition spread homophobic rumors, misleading news, and doctored images on YouTube and WhatsApp.”
The report, not surprisingly, awards the status of the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom to China, but also points out that Internet freedom is on the continued decline also in the U.S. Specifically, it notes:
“Officials increasingly monitored social media platforms and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices to glean information about constitutionally protected activities such as peaceful protests and critical reporting.”
While outright dictatorships – amongst them Russia and China – are building social media from the ground up as surveillance and suppression tools. The largest of these platforms are based in the U.S. and backed by Silicon Valley. Their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is, in large part, a product of American neglect. Freedom House points out:
“Whether due to naïveté about the internet’s role in democracy promotion or policymakers’ laissez-faire attitude toward Silicon Valley, we now face a stark reality: the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.”
This is strong language from an organization like Freedom House, given its funding and given the current US President’s – let me call it, ‘propensity’- to force and coerce US governmental or government sponsored agencies to support his views and opinions.
If we take the President on his words, he refutes the intelligence community’s firm conclusion that Russia interfered in domestic democratic processes in the U.S. and, as he said, if and to whatever degree it did happen, it was not a problem, as the U.S. would be doing the same thing. So, social media has been and is weaponized in terms of political processes.
Social media as a powerful tool for the ‘good’, for democratic participation, for public discourse, for enabling anyone to have a voice, has been taken over by forces which are intentionally using it for the opposite goal: to weaken social and democratic convergence processes and political discourse, and replacing it with discord, polarization and fear – benefitting illiberal, totalitarian and anti-democratic politics.
– Bjørn Stormorken,
Co-Founder and CFO of Idka