Totalitarian regimes are increasingly turning to the Internet as a way to control their own publics and as a tool to use to undermine democracies and threaten dissidents abroad.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to critique some of these regimes, as major social media companies such as Facebook and Google cater to requests by regimes to remove content, ban users, or make it difficult to find content.
It used to be, in the 20th century, that totalitarian regimes were at a disadvantage to democracies because their publics were able to import dissident material from democracies. The dictatorships had a difficult time controlling or threatening dissidents in democracies, because their reach was curtailed by the method of disseminating information. Because democracies tend to have more media, by the very nature of having internal competition, dictatorships in the 20th century were often under siege, trying to keep information from entering their country.
Porous borders and radio waves and other methods enabled people to learn what was happening outside of various police states, such as the Soviet empire.
In the 21st century the situation has reversed itself. Dictatorships were initially threatened by the explosion of connectivity to the Internet. Suddenly, publics had access to all sorts of information. New websites popped up in various languages. Social media enabled people in places like Iran to communicate with the outside world.
But totalitarian leaders quickly understood that the Internet’s greatest potential was also its weakness. The soft underbelly of the Internet is that everyone is suddenly online and can be monitored, tracked and found. For instance, instead of hiding in the shadows with banned books and ideas, people are now online, and their ideas are there for all to see. All the government needs is some software to monitor what they say, and then a way to track and find them.
But totalitarian governments don’t simply track people using software and spyware. What they also do is they then shut down opposition or dissident websites inside their own borders. They prosecute editors and authors.
For instance a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that there are 251 jailed journalists globally. It named Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the largest jailers. Iran is also a leading suppressor.
Blogger Vahid Sayyadi Nasir died on a hunger strike in an Iranian prison, according to reports on Monday. Even though Western media highlight these stories, such as Time magazine devoting its “person of the year” to journalists, the reality is that democracies are not fighting back against regimes that crush dissent.
We can see that in the behavior of Western-based tech giants. These social media and search engine giants were supposed to help people interact globally, and as such they should have been platforms for freedom. But what actually happens is that these tech giants partner with various regimes, including the greatest jailers of journalists, to craft and manage content in collaboration with the regimes.
This is an opaque process, whose details are not fully revealed. Western democracies, which have a duty to protect the content on social media, which are the largest publishers of content, have abrogated their responsibility to demand transparency.
For instance, we don’t know why certain posts on Facebook do not get seen by people in your “friends” list or even people that “follow” and “like” your page. Imagine if other platforms such as radio worked that way. Let’s say you had a radio station and you tell people to tune in to it. But a large corporation decides that it has a “better model” and redirects them to listen to a different station that it thinks is a better and more wholesome experience. So even though people want to listen to 96.5 Christian talk radio, a giant corporation decides they should listen to something about sports; and so even though they tune into 96.5, they get some other content. Facebook is like that. You choose to follow your friends and like certain content. But Facebook decides, arbitrarily, that you should see content from only 5% of your friends, and that even though you “liked” a page about Portuguese cheeses, you actually don’t really want to see anything from that page.
Now this gets even more shadowy when the cheese page pays to “boost” its content so that you, the person who liked it, will actually see information about their cheese. But because the social media giant has some shadowy relationship with some dictatorship that doesn’t want you learning about cheese, it labels the attempt to boost the post “political” and doesn’t show it to the people who liked the page.
This isn’t an imaginary example. This actually happens on social media. These giants now control more information than media companies have ever controlled in history. They do, in fact, partner with governments, and posts critical of some governments get labeled “political” and are not shown to people. Even if you want to learn about human rights abuses in some countries, you increasingly cannot.
This is how totalitarian regimes win. They don’t merely imprison all the bloggers and free thinkers in their own country; using new technology, they then reach out and work with major social media giants in the West to ban or reduce criticism anywhere on the platform. They also go online and “report” on users who are critical, banning them either through direct demands to the social media giant, or by employing a group of “trolls” to report the same profiles at the same time. Increasingly, the war is being waged online between various regimes and their armies of “bots” that target users who are critical.
There is almost no pushback by democracies. Governments in the West haven’t understood how this new war is being fought, and they are squandering the opportunity to find out how their own social media giants are increasingly partnering with foreign governments to suppress content.
They aren’t trying to protect the public from this suppression, or creating a “Bill of Rights” for Internet use. Instead, they are plodding along, allowing individuals to be targeted one by one. At every turn we see how new technology has enabled regimes to track dissidents abroad, to use various tools to shut down their access to social media.
These regimes can’t ban individual websites that are hosted abroad, but they can make it so no one sees those websites. This is increasingly easier. You don’t need to ban information if you can just make it difficult to find. And major tech companies are giving totalitarian regimes the tools to do this, either directly, through partnerships, or indirectly, by allowing regimes to exploit their platforms.
Social media giants are often slow to react. They might tap down on extremism online, or even certain types of foreign meddling in elections. But by their very nature these large companies also are keeping members from seeing the information the users want.
They increasingly think they know what is “best” for the users and show them content they think is “most interesting.” In fact, they are even flagging some boosted posts as “not interesting” and simply not showing them to people who actively sought to “like” them.
Social media giants are now like the newsstand of old. But unlike the newsstand, where the customer could choose from a variety of newspapers, and where, if customer demand was high enough, the stand would stock more of something, the social media giant rearranges the newspapers every day, and even if you want them, the giant tells you that they are “sold out” or gives you a different newspaper instead. It doesn’t care if there is a huge amount of demand for one newspaper; it wants you to read something else. And its objective increasingly is to keep you at the newsstand by giving you short little snippets of broadsheets, and not even letting you choose the product you want.
And, to make this all worse, various regimes are able to come to the newsstand, cut out some stories they don’t like, and then put listening devices in the consumers of certain newspapers to spy on them after they buy the product.
When someone asks you how totalitarian regimes succeeded in the 21st century, this is how it happened. It didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened openly.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman
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