The Digital Disruption of Human Rights

June 17, 2019

In countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, fake news on social media has become the frontline between Muslims and Buddhists. In one instance in Sri Lanka, Facebook posts falsely alleging that Muslim shopkeepers were putting sterilization pills in food served to Buddhist customers led to violence. A man was burned to death.

In Myanmar, a study commissioned by Facebook found that military officials used fake news to incite violence against the Rohingya minority, helping to set the stage for what the UN described as ethnic cleansing.

Disinformation has long poisoned public discourse, but it’s been amplified in the digital age as a weapon of choice — now known as fake news — to reduce trust in key institutions and governance processes.  Disinformation campaigns are used as a tool for warfare, increasing ethnic divides and nationalism and increasing violence and instability.

Social media companies have adopted two approaches to fight disinformation: block content outright or provide alternative information alongside the content so that the users are exposed to correct information. But these practices are not enough, and Facebook, Twitter, and Google have come under increasing pressure to do more.

Counterpart International works with partners and in networks around the world develop tools and partnerships to combat the spread of disinformation and secure the digital space. All too often, we see that technology is increasingly an enabler and worldwide driver of instability and can negatively affect human rights.

In what’s known as “state-sponsored trolling,” governments create digital hate mobs to discredit critical activists or journalists, suppress dissent, undermine political opponents, and control public opinion through lies and disinformation.

Rand Corp. study of the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed 13,000 lives since 2014, found that the Russian government ran a sophisticated social media campaign that included fake news, Twitter bots, unattributed comments on web pages, and fabricated hashtag campaigns to “mobilize support, spread disinformation and hatred and try to destabilize the situation.” A NATO report noted that instead of using cyber attacks to take out physical networks, the target in Ukraine was “the minds of the people.”

Let me highlight a few ways that technology can disrupt human rights:

Global Inequality Aggravated by Digital Divide

  • Roughly six out of ten people in the world are not connected to the Internet. Even more stark is the fact that roughly 65% of people in the developing world do not yet use the Internet. Women generally have less access to the Internet (another expression of gender inequality), as do people living in rural areas.

Digitally Facilitated Repression is on the Rise

  • Technology gives authoritarian governments enhanced capacities to censor expression, block or filter access to information, monitor online activity, and more effectively and efficiently control populations than they did in the pre-digital world.

Violations in the Name of Security

  • Authoritarians using nationalism to crack down on marginalized populations
  • Civil society labeled terrorists due to receipt of external funds
  • Violence against journalists rising

The result of all of this is that civic space is shrinking globally.  Even here in the United States.

All around the world, active citizenship is under attack and the space for civic engagement is closing—not just in countries that have struggled under repressive or autocratic governments, but also in democracies with longstanding traditions of supporting freedom of expression.

In some countries, especially newer democracies or countries undergoing political transitions, those in power are fearful of civic activism. Officials in governments with no previous experience regulating political protests or public debates have come down with a heavy hand, erring on the side of preventing change rather than encouraging it.

In other countries, including the United States – partly in response to the fear of terrorism – well-established civil liberties have been interrupted in the name of security. Such measures, from mass surveillance to martial law, reduce the space for civic life, the space where citizens do the heavy lifting of improving our communities and societies.

We must forge a new solidarity to ensure that universal human rights fit the digital environment and apply existing human right principles and laws in an increasingly digitized context. We must reinforce that protection of human rights is an essential element of national security. And we must ensure that digital security remains a shared national security, economic security, and human rights priority.

I’m often asked what we can do to combat closing civic space and promote a secure digital space. And I have a few ideas:

  • Prioritize activists’ physical security;
  • Ensure affordable Internet access;
  • Build the capacity to collaborate through peer-to-peer networks; and
  • Use and promote encrypted forms of communication.

But most importantly, perhaps, is to team up with innovative and pro-social good technology organizations to build a social good environment

Technology can solve the world’s problems in a meaningful manner and the returns on these ventures can be lucrative. Counterpart invests in digital security training to support these efforts, forging unique partnerships to advance human rights, innovation, and internet security. I hope you will join us in our efforts to inspire and support people to use technology for social good.

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