More than 3.8 billion people have access to the Internet today, and more than 70 percent live in countries where individuals have been arrested for posting about political, social or religious issues. Sixty-five percent live in countries where individuals have been attacked or killed for their online activities — individuals like the two Thai anti-government activists whose bodies were found stuffed with concrete in the Mekong River last December.
Freedom House found that unscrupulous politicians launder disinformation into the mainstream through local actors such as pop culture personalities and business magnates, many of whom are paid for their efforts to amplify conspiracy theories, misleading memes and more. Consultants in the Philippines charge 30 million pesos, or $580,000, for three-month influence efforts conducted in closed groups as well as on hyperpartisan “alternative news” channels. Brazil’s presidential election featured operatives who scraped phone numbers from Facebook to add voters to WhatsApp groups filled with propaganda based on their personal identifiers. In India, 1.3 million youths in the National Cadet Corps were instructed to download a special app from Prime Minister Narendra Modi marketed as a source for official news and stuffed with deceptive and divisive material.
The report also focuses on “machine-driven monitoring of the public,” realized to its fullest dystopian extent in China. The Muslim Uighur minority there is systematically tracked by law enforcement equipped with a biometric database of almost the entire population. But even in the United States, agencies have become more aggressive with warrantless searches of electronic devices at the border and social media sweeps of immigrants and immigration activists. There’s also a booming market for high-tech surveillance capabilities among less advanced countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. A 2020 trade show in Dubai will feature the best of the worst from global firms, such as a product from the Chinese company Semptian that can audit the online activity of 5 million people for $1.5 million to $2.5 million, a bargain for any dictator.
The Internet, we have learned, does not inevitably bring freedom. Society’s blindness to anything but the good of the Web might have left well-meaning governments behind in regulating to enshrine privacy or ensure transparency in elections. It’s not too late to aim for a better Year 10.