How authoritarian governments are enlisting platforms for state censorship
Last year’s avalanche of media stories about Meta (formerly Facebook), capped by revelations from the whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager for the company, has put a spotlight on Facebook and how the platform could exercise greater transparency to allow citizens access to high-quality and independent information.
The increasing turn to social media platforms for news has not gone unnoticed by autocratic leaders around the world today, whose hold on power depends on the ability to silence dissent, muzzle truth-telling and censor independent news media. That is why content moderation policies must be designed with protection of human rights and press freedom in mind. Otherwise, such policies can have devastating consequences for democratic movements and media under autocratic regimes.
Tacit assistance to authoritarian leaders
Following Haugen’s document release in 2021, the Washington Post reported that Facebook CEO Zuckerberg had given in to censorship demands from Vietnam’s government, removing more than 2,200 posts between July and December 2020. The human rights organisation Amnesty International warned that Facebook’s action had set a dangerous precedent and that governments “will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship.”
Facebook’s annual revenue in Vietnam is estimated at a billion dollars. The country is the company’s largest source of revenue in Southeast Asia. Many media analysts, in addition to Haugen, believe that Facebook’s focus on profit undermines its democratising potential.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s regional deputy director for campaigns, has accused social media platforms in Vietnam of not only failing to deal with the “heinous repression” online but of being complicit in it.
Inconsistent decisions made by social media giants operating in the Global South can have significant impact on democratic movements and independent media, as they are easily exploited by autocrats to silence critical voices. For example, the Vietnam’s Communist Party, emboldened by years of systematic online repression and acquiescence from companies like Facebook, jailed five journalists in October 2021 for ‘spreading anti-state content’ on the Facebook-based news outlet Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper). The news page is currently not available on Facebook.
The situation is no better in India, often called the world’s largest democracy but now seen by some as joining the ranks of ‘flawed democracies’ or ‘electoral autocracies’. Facebook’s failure to deal with incitement of violence and its lack of a consistent content moderation policy have enabled the government of India to undermine critical voices and independent media.
According to its transparency report, Facebook removed 442 items between January and June 2021 “in response to directions from India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology for violating Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.” The law Facebook cited to justify its action “undermines the public’s right to receive information, which is a core component of the fundamental freedom [of] speech and expression,” as prominent Indian lawyer and Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation Apar Gupta wrote in The Indian Express.
Further, Gupta described the law’s emphasis on secrecy, which allows the government to block users’ accounts without disclosing a reason, as “an anti-democratic practice that results in an unchecked growth of irrational censorship.”
For legal pretexts, a race to the bottom
In its 2021 Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House noted that a growing number of governments are asserting their authority over tech firms, “often forcing the businesses to comply with online censorship and surveillance.” One example is Ethiopia, an at-risk country where Facebook has been accused of failing to curb the spread of content inciting violence. According to the rights organisation Article 19, the government’s new law on hate speech and disinformation could be used as a pretext to force tech companies to silence criticism.
This tactic is not unique to Ethiopia. In a recent article, Tomiwa Ilori, an internet researcher at the University of Pretoria, argued that Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act, Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act, Kenya’s Computer and Cybercrimes Act and Malawi’s Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act “are so vaguely worded that they can be weaponized to stifle dissent.”
Social media companies argue that, in these cases, compliance is the lesser evil. If their services are cut off, people in authoritarian countries will be worse off still, with fewer means to communicate.
Revenue versus responsibility
As online speech looks set to remain a contested regulatory issue, calls have grown louder for tech giants to place human rights and greater transparency at the core of their decisions. In an October 2021 Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg rejected all such claims that his company puts profit over safety and wellbeing.
Facebook’s ad revenue in 2020 from all regions in the Global South amounted to $23 billion (US), more than half the amount from the United States and Canada combined. Yet, the company dedicated a far smaller proportion of resources to dealing with misinformation in the Global South. A 2021 report by The Atlantic showed that only 13 percent of Facebook’s misinformation moderation staff hours were devoted to regions outside the US, although these regions are home to over 90 percent of the platform’s users.
A way forward
Access to information and freedom of expression, including public conversation on social media, are a vital part of democratic processes. Regardless of where one stands on how tech giants should navigate challenges from autocratic leaders, the principles of free speech and press freedom should remain non-negotiable. To safeguard those pillars of democratic society, tech multinationals should significantly increase their investment in the Global South to address the challenge of misinformation and incitement of violence. To that end, these companies should invest in staffing field offices with experts who are familiar with the local context and can be contacted by civil society.
Tech multinationals should also consider a significant increase of investment in automated systems for detecting speech inciting violence and misinformation in languages other than English, particularly in high-risk regions. Failure to place human rights at the core of their operations can create a vacuum of responsibility, which will be exploited by autocratic leaders who have no interest in advancing free speech and defending an independent press.
Gideon Sarpong, co-founder of iWatch Africa, was a 2021 Policy Leader Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance. He is currently a Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford and a 2021 Open Internet for Democracy Leader.
This post is an abridged version of the author’s commentary on the website of the Center for International Media Assistance (cima.ned.org) and is published here with permission. The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) is a think tank based in Washington, DC, that works to promote diverse and innovative media systems for an informed public around the world. You can follow CIMA on Twitter or like CIMA on Facebook.