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. 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. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019.
Social media allow ordinary people, civic groups, and journalists to reach a vast audience at little or no cost, but they have also provided an extremely useful and inexpensive platform for malign influence operations by foreign and domestic actors alike. Political leaders employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions in 38 of the 65 countries covered in this report—a new high. 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.
While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civil discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism.
Cross-border influence operations, which first drew widespread attention as a result of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential contest, are also an increasingly common problem.
Authorities in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a growing list of other countries have expanded their efforts to manipulate the online environment and influence foreign political outcomes over the past year. Malicious actors are no doubt emboldened by the failure of democratic states to update transparency and financing rules that are vital to free and fair elections, and apply them effectively to the online sphere.
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. Sophisticated mass surveillance that was once feasible only for the world’s leading intelligence agencies is now affordable for a much broader range of states. Freedom House research indicates that more repressive governments are acquiring social media surveillance tools that employ artificial intelligence to identify perceived threats and silence undesirable expression. Even in democracies, such mass monitoring is spreading across government agencies and being used for new purposes without adequate safeguards. The result is a sharp global increase in the abuse of civil liberties and shrinking online space for civic activism. Of the 65 countries we assessed, a record 47 featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech.
While authoritarian powers like China and Russia have played an enormous role in dimming the prospects for technology to deliver greater human rights, the world’s leading social media platforms are based in the United States, and their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is in large part a product of American neglect. 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. The United States must take the lead in rallying defenders of the open internet to fairly regulate a technology that has become a necessity for our commerce, politics, and personal lives.
There is no more time to waste. Emerging technologies such as advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and fifth-generation mobile networks will provide new opportunities for human development, but they will also undoubtedly present a new array of human rights challenges. Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today.
Reprinted by permission