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Digital Platforms Facebook, Twitter, Google

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    The internet, democracies’ shining champion.In the 21st century, the internet has deeply embedded itself into most spheres of social, economic and political life. The introduction of social networks has allowed local movements to jump scale and reach national and international audiences. It promotes democracy by giving a voice to those without political power.Many think the internet is an inherently emancipatory tool. In this vein, US-President Ronald Reagan claimed that ‘The Goliath of Totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip’.I say this is myth, reality is different. The web of the present is not the prelude to an era of freedom, democracy, and truthful discourse. I propose that the web is held within a tight grip across political systems.

    Negative methods are employed in authoritarian nations. These are measures that aim at removing information and opinions from the eye of the public.Positive methods are used in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. These are efforts that introduce the public to propaganda. I will demonstrate how both methods are realized in China and the US.

    Negative methods: Silencing Voices

    If there used to be hope about the internets’ liberating democratic potential, it has long given way to disillusionment in auth-oritarian states. The worlds authoritarian governments have demonstrated that they have just as much aptitude for technology as their populace.Authoritarian nations have found ways to obtain the economic opportunities and foreign investment that the internet attracts, without the political turmoil that it could cause. In 2017 Freedom House reported that internet freedom had declined in 32 countries.China is the leading opponent of the free and democratic internet. Chinese citizens live under the world’s most severe form of online censorship. A price the Chinese Communist Party is willing to pay to uphold a ‘harmonious society’. However, keeping the harmony between 1.3 billion inhabitants requires measures on a massive scale.For this reason, the regime built ‘the Great Firewall of China. An initiative that began as the national surveillance network ‘Golden Shield’ developed with the help of US companies Nortel and Cisco Systems. As of now, it has been extended and can identify the faces and voices of Chinese citizens.

    The ‘great Firewall’ can block foreign internet tools (Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.), VPNs , and filter internet traffic for keywords. The Chinese efforts have so far been successful, as the numbers of Chinese netizens that engage in ‘fanqiang’ or ‘scaling the wall’ have dwindled. Naturally, ‘Golden Shield’ attracted the envy of other authoritarian governments and has consequently been exported to Cuba, Belarus, and Iran. To the governments’ benefit, Chinese citizens have become self-censoring. Since they can never be sure if they are under surveillance, they barely ever voice opinions differing from those of the party.Censorship and surveillance are what I consider negative methods, aimed at repressing unfavourable opinions. They are usually a feature of authoritarian systems. They need a strong central power that implements and oversees them.

    Positive methods: Muddying the waters of information

    The separation of powers, plurality, and a free discourse are the founding pillars of democracies. Therefore, negative methods are usually not to be found. Following, we will see how the internet in democratic regimes has still become an instrument of manipulation through positive methods.Faced with strong democratic institutions, manipulators cannot rely on censorship like their authoritarian counterparts. Therefore, they focus on ‘muddying the waters of information’. By injecting stories that deliberately aim to spread misinformation into the newsfeeds of citizens, they aim to shape public opinion in their favour.Especially, in the US we recently saw a major effort in the spread of misinformation by political actors. Here, bots were employed to spread propaganda in comment sections, forums, and social media. These bots can be supplemented with humans, making them even harder to detect.

    Another method is fake news whereby stories that are provably false nevertheless are consumed by millions of people. Corporations may use positive methods in the form of shilling or paying for positive reviews. As of now, governments, institutions, and corporations have been unable to deal with these methods. Meanwhile, even stronger instruments of spreading propaganda are on the horizon: Deepfakes, algorithms that when fed with enough material can create videos where they replace one face with another. This transformation is nearly seamless provided the source material is good enough, which is usually the case with public figures, like Presidents.

    Concluding: When institutions fail

    Authoritarian nations like China use both negative and positive methods to control the discourse on the internet. Meanwhile, we have also started seeing a more pronounced use of positive methods in democracies.However, negative methods could be introduced in democracies. Importantly, the flow of attention of the world is determined by just a handful of digital platforms: Facebook, Google and TwitterThese few corporations have the technology and power to introduce censorship in democracies around the world. Social media companies control what their algorithms let users see. They can decide which posts rank highest or remain hidden and thus control public perception of an issue. Furthermore, US companies have helped in the development of ‘Golden Shield’. Additionally, Google has in the past already built a censored version of their search engine for the Chinese market.

    Ultimately, Internet Service Providers in the US have recently gained the power to control public discourse. The Federal Communications Commission has under the Trump administration disassembled net neutrality, meaning Internet Service Providers could now throttle internet speeds for content they disapprove of. As you can see the technology of censoring the internet is already present in democratic countries. Therefore, I warn that if our institutions fail to uphold current standards of democracy and freedom of speech and keep watch over corporations, then the freedom of the internet could disappear quickly.


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