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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.

    References

    1. Best, M.L., Keegan, W.W. (2009). The Internet and democracy: Global Catalyst or democratic Dud?. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 29(4), 25-271
    2. Cable News Network. (2006, January 26). Google to censor itself in China. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2006/BUSINESS/01/25/google.china/
    3. Cole, B. (2018, May 22). Trump has 15 million fake twitter followers. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/15-million-trumps-twitter-followers-are-not-human-937946
    4. DirResta, R., Little, J., Morgan, J., Neudert, L. M., Nimmo, B. (2017, November 2). The Bots That Are Changing Politics. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mb37k4/twitter-facebook-google-bots-misinformation-changing-politics
    5. Figure 1. Internet Freedom around the World. Reprinted from Freedom House, 2017. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2017. Copyright 2018 by Freedom House.
    6. Figure 2. Chinese Internet Censorship Flow Chart. Reprinted from ‘Visual Capitalist’ by N. Routley, September 30 2017, Visual Capitalist. Retrieved from http://www.visualcapitalist.com/internet-censorship-map/. Copyright 2017 by Visual Capitalist.
    7. Freedom House. (2017). Freedom on the Net 2017. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2017
    8. Fung, B., (2018, June 11). The FCC’s net neutrality rules are officially repealed today. Here’s what that really means. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/06/11/the-fccs-net-neutrality-rules-are-officially-repealed-today-heres-what-that-really-means/?utm_term=.d2bceefa3f19
    9. Gallagher, P. (2015, March 27). Revealed: Putin’s army of pro-Kremlin bloggers. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/revealed-putins-army-of-pro-kremlin-bloggers-10138893.html
    10. Human Rights in China. (2002, June 17). China’s golden shield. Retrieved from: https://www.hrichina.org/en/content/4598
    11. James, R. (2009, March 18). Chinese Internet Censorship. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1885961,00.html
    12. Kahn, J. (2002, December 4). China Has World’s Tightest Internet Censorship Study Finds. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/04/world/china-has-world-s-tightest-internet-censorship-study-finds.html
    13. Lake, E. (2009, September 3). Hacking the Regime. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/68899/hacking-the-regime
    14. MacKinnon, R., Schwartz B.L. (2010). Networked Authoritarianism in China and Beyond: Implications for global Internet freedom. New America Foundation. Retrieved from http://rconversation.blogs.com/MacKinnon_Libtech.pdf
    15. Manyika, J., Roxburgh, C. (2011, October). The great transformer: The impact of the Internet on economic growth and prosperity. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/High%20Tech/Our%20Insights/The%20great%20transformer/MGI_Impact_of_Internet_on_economic_growth.ashx
    16. Stone, B., Barboza, D. (2010, January 15). Scaling the Digital Wall in China. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/16/technology/internet/16evade.html
    17. Vincent, J. (2018, September 14). US lawmakers say AI deepfakes ‘have the potential to disrupt every facet of our society’. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/14/17859188/ai-deepfakes-national-security-threat-lawmakers-letter-intelligence-community
    18. Voeux, C., Pain, J. (2006, October 19). GOING ONLINE IN CUBA: Internet under surveillance. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20090303221407/http:/www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_gb_md_1.pdf
    19. Warf, B., (2011). Geographies of global Internet censorship. GeoJournal, 76(1),1-23. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227200039_Geographies_of_Global_Internet_Censorship

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    Digital Platforms Facebook, Twitter, Google. (2022, Mar 11). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/digital-platforms-facebook-twitter-google/

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