Social media is a threat to freedom and democracy, human rights group warns

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles November 8, 2019
A disturbing report from Freedom House paints a dark picture for all of us.

social media

Election interference and government surveillance on social media are destroying internet freedoms.

Repressive governments and partisan peddlers of disinformation around the world are leveraging the power of social media platforms to spy on and control their own people, influence and shape the outcome of elections, block dissenting voices and steadily erode internet freedom and privacy.    

That’s the bleak takeaway from a just-released new report called  Freedom on the Net 2019: The Crisis of Social Media published by Freedom House, a bipartisan Washington-based pro-democracy group.  The authors mince no words in describing what is happening and  who is to blame:  

Internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism, which have spread rapidly around the globe. 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. 

The two main reasons for the decline, the report said, are increased online election interference--by governments and special interests--and increased government surveillance, both of which are spreading rapidly on social media platforms.

While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civic discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms. Moreover, a startling variety of governments are deploying advanced tools to identify and monitor users on an immense scale.  

The report said social media have emerged as the "new battleground" for democracy. In the past, governments have traditionally use censorship and site-blocking technologies. Now, government and partisan actors have used disinformation and propaganda to distort facts and shape opinions during elections in dozens of countries over the past year, including the 2018 U.S. midterm elections and the 2019 European Parliament elections.

Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz said in a statement:

Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship.  Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.

More than 3.8 billion people have access to the Internet today and more than 70 percent live in countries where individuals have been arrested for posting about political, social or religious issues.  Of the 65 countries the report assessed over the past year, citizens were arrested for such postings in a record 47 countries, 40 countries had advanced social media surveillance programs; and in 38 countries, political leaders employed individuals to shape online opinions. 

One particularly disturbing finding:  93% of people living in a country with an election faced internet-driven election interference from their own government or domestic partisans last year.

Since last year, 33 countries assessed in the report had an overall decline in their internet freedom score, a measure that factors in a country’s obstacles to internet access, content limits, and user rights violations. Only 16 countries registered improvements in their scores in the past year. This is the ninth consecutive year the survey has registered a decline in free speech and privacy on the internet.

Even the U.S., which enjoys a relatively free internet with no state censorship, lost a point from the previous report, partly because of the repeal of net neutrality as well as lingering concerns about the Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 election, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the seeming inability of the large social media networks to adequately remedy election manipulation and increase transparency around government data requests.    

The report also noted law enforcement’s and immigration agencies’ increased surveillance of social media, using powerful digital profiling tools like those offered by  Palantir, which has come under fire from its own employees for providing equipment to the government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

The United States scored 77 on a scale of 0 (not free) to 100 (free), coming in seventh in the overall ranking. (Iceland was first.) China remained the world's worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year as the government stepped up information controls amid protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the report said.

The report indicates that the proliferation of new technologies like advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and 5G mobile networks will likely make the situation worse.  Said  Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy:

In addition to facilitating the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation during election periods, social media platforms have enabled the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data on entire populations.  The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.

My Take

For many of us who were around for the birth of the internet, the initial premise that connecting the world and giving ordinary citizens a voice through an inexpensive and ubiquitous medium would lead to greater peace, love and understanding always seemed a stretch. Human nature is what it is.  

The initial decade of the internet was dominated by big companies building mostly static websites and trying to figure out how to turn eyeballs into sales. The arrival of social media platforms and other interactive tools in mid-2000s helped to transform the billboard web into an engaging interactive experience capable of attracting millions of users. That’s when politicians and authoritarian governments started to take notice.

Social media allowed ordinary people, civic groups, and journalists to reach a vast audience at little or no cost. At the same time, they have also provided an extremely easy and inexpensive platform for malign influence operations by foreign and domestic actors alike. Not to mention, a field of dreams for corporate marketers.

With data-mining tools once available only to the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies, emboldened by little or no regulation, social media platforms know more us than we know about ourselves. Advances in AI have only made the spying more efficient. 

Freedom House recommends increased transparency and oversight of these platforms in order to stop the situation from getting worse.  Said Shabaz:  

Since these are mainly American platforms, the United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.

I agree with the premise that the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media. Mark Zuckerberg is the 800-pound gorilla of social media. I have zero faith that he has the willingness or ability to fix it.

Image credit - via Shutterstock

Read more on:
A grey colored placeholder image