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COVID-19 Intensifies Digital Repression in South and Southeast Asia
Table of Contents
Global political trends in recent years have put to rest any illusions that the relationship between technological innovation and progress in democratic politics would be largely positive. Digital technology is disrupting international politics in myriad ways. To start, it is bringing new dimensions to the authoritarian playbook, enabling governments to more easily manipulate information consumed by citizens, to monitor dissent and track political opponents, and to censor communications. Democracies, meanwhile, struggle to strike the right balance between rewarding economic innovation and reaping the financial benefits of Big Tech, while protecting user privacy, guarding against surveillance misuses, and countering disinformation and hate speech.
The COVID-19 crisis has intensified these tensions. Governments have seized upon the pandemic as an excuse to introduce a new wave of restrictions—emergency decrees that prohibit public gatherings, measures that censor online speech, and directives that affect user privacy. States have deployed new applications to counter the spread of the disease, rolling out contact tracing apps, facial recognition systems, and digital health passports. Some of these technologies represent legitimate attempts to control the virus but many measures lack basic safeguards to protect data privacy. Certain governments are using data collected from public health interventions in pursuit of unrelated law enforcement activities. It is unclear whether states will retract these restrictions when the pandemic finally ebbs or if they are here to stay.
As the United States’ influence decreases and emerging states, particularly China, increase their power, the global online commons is fraying. Experts once divided internet governance into “democratic” and “authoritarian” domains. On one side stood the United States and its allies, which advanced a model centered round an “open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet” that prioritized individual freedom of action, liberal values, and minimal government interference. On the other side stood a smaller group of countries led by China, Russia, and Iran, which offered an alternative model premised on “information security”—maintaining that a country’s sovereign interests should dictate which rules apply. Despite insistence by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration that the world remains divided between “techno democracies” and “techno autocracies,” a more accurate description would be fragmentation. Increasingly, the world is splintering into national or regional internets, governed by different norms and rules and incorporating democratic and authoritarian characteristics.
In 2021 alone, a slew of countries, many of them democratic, have adopted restrictive digital regulations more at home in authoritarian states. In June, for example, Nigeria banned Twitter from operating in the country. The reason was that Twitter had removed a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari that the company claimed violated its community guidelines. In response, the government accused Twitter of “undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence” and outlawed the service. Meanwhile in India, the government decreed in February that all online media outlets and video-content providers were required to appoint local representatives to respond to every government complaint within fifteen days. The law also authorized state officials to censure or delete content that crossed certain lines. Several months later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became so incensed after Twitter labeled a post from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party “manipulated media” that he authorized a special forces raid on the company’s offices. Similarly, the governments of Turkey, Uganda, the Philippines, and Indonesia have cherry-picked regulatory approaches to create distinctive local versions of the internet—whether incorporating social media taxes and localization requirements or enacting burdensome content restrictions. More recently, Russian authorities have refined a new tactic—demanding that Apple and Google remove programs from their app stores linked to opposition leaders—ahead of Duma elections.
These trends cause growing concerns about how technology, politics, and state authority will evolve. Can democracies strike an appropriate balance between safeguarding their societies from dangerously polarizing online rhetoric while maintaining commitments to protecting free expression? Can democratic leaders reach consensus about how to address core policy problems such as establishing coherent rules about personal data protection and privacy, devising guidelines for the responsible use of emerging technologies like facial recognition, or finally reining in Big Tech’s excessive market and surveillance power? What will be China’s influence on technology and data governance, and will its efforts to rewrite cyber norms allow digital authoritarian approaches to gain ground? Can civic activists, independent journalists, and human rights advocates continue to find innovative ways to push back against government repression using new tools, tactics, and technologies? The answers to these questions are not foretold—all of them represent major areas of contestation.
While policymakers seek resolutions to these pressing questions, they can benefit from the ground-level insights of experts, scholars, researchers, and activists. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has assembled the Digital Democracy Network—a diverse group of cutting-edge thinker-activists engaged in work on technology and politics. The network aims to facilitate cross-regional knowledge sharing, support collaborative strategies to pressing problems, and investigate previously unknown and emerging questions in the field. This report represents the network’s first effort to describe challenges to governance posed by digital technology.
This collection highlights four themes.
First, it focuses attention on the COVID-19 pandemic and evaluates national and regional responses to the disease. Experts are divided about the long-term political consequences of the pandemic. Groups such as Freedom House, International IDEA, and International Center for Not-for-profit Law (ICNL) document how surveillance overreach, data and privacy vulnerabilities, media suppression, content restrictions, and emergency decrees have challenged democratic institutions and undermined civil liberties. ICNL, for example, reports via its COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker that through September 2021, 109 countries had issued emergency declarations, 57 had instituted measures that impact freedom of expression, 150 had implemented restrictions on freedom of assembly, and 60 had enacted restrictions on privacy.
Other organizations, however, paint a less grim picture. Researchers from the Varieties of Democracy project write: “The COVID-19 pandemic has registered several wins and losses for democratic standards. While high-income Western democracies have generally performed quite well, several low and lower-middle income countries stand out for their innovation and advances.” They note that the most serious democratic violations have tended to occur at the beginning stages of the pandemic and that the number of restrictions has declined over time. They observe that courts have pushed back successfully against overreach by executive branches, that certain countries have managed to avoid discrimination while establishing safe COVID-19 protocols, and that a number of states have successfully countered public health misinformation while avoiding broader media restrictions.
But, even if certain countries are witnessing recent governance improvements, several concerning trends stand out. One, in countries already prone to repression, the pandemic has given greater license to governments to enact additional restrictions on citizens’ liberties. Countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Turkey have pursued a mix of new surveillance technologies and legal directives that have significantly constrained freedom of association and expression. Two, governments have used the threat of disinformation as a pretext to persecute under “fake news” statutes scores of individuals, many of whom happen to be civil society activists and political opposition figures, while at the same time these governments have expanded their own public health disinformation efforts. State disinformation follows one of three lines: denialist (governments discredit or deny reports of outbreaks in their countries), anti-science (authorities minimize COVID-19 dangers while rejecting accepted medical recommendations), and curist (leaders promote unfounded treatments for the virus—such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine).
Members of the Digital Democracy Network offer their own perspectives about the meaning and import of the COVID-19 pandemic. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, affiliated with Chulalongkorn University and the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (the GIGA) and Sangeeta Mahapatra, also with the GIGA, provide a case-study analysis of COVID-19 restrictions in Southeast Asia. ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Nigeria’s Paradigm Initiative, turns his eye to sub-Saharan Africa, where he finds a similar pattern of COVID-19-related digital abuses occurring in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia. Irene Poetranto and Lotus Ruan, researchers affiliated with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, present a global overview of new technologies adopted in response to the pandemic. They examine the cost of countries’ growing reliance on advanced digital tools in public health and where this reliance might lead.
Second, network members describe how authoritarian regimes are employing new technologies to strengthen their rule and counter opposition and civic challenges. An expanding set of countries are relying on facial recognition technology, big data analytics, predictive policing techniques, and Safe City systems to enhance their security capabilities. The latest data from the Digital Society Project, updated to include 2020 statistics, continues to show a close relationship between authoritarian regimes, constraints on political freedoms, and corresponding government reliance on digital repression techniques. As Figure 1 shows, countries with the greatest prevalence of surveillance, censorship, internet shutdowns, and disinformation include authoritarian stalwarts like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and countries in Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. Conversely, Europe and the Americas display reduced levels of digital repression.
The analysis in this section explores different aspects of these repression trends. They ask: Why do states choose to adopt advanced technologies from authoritarian sources? What technological methods are Gulf states using to enact their political agendas? What can civil society make of the growth of internet shutdowns and social media blockages around the world? How are Myanmar’s armed forces incorporating digital techniques as a means to enforce troop loyalty and maintain their control over the country?
Akin Unver, an associate professor of international relations at Turkey’s Özyeğin University, argues that economic considerations, rather than geopolitical or ideological preferences, are more relevant in determining whether countries will source artificial intelligence technologies from China or from democratic states. Afef Abrougui, affiliated with the Social Media Exchange, writes about the adoption by Gulf Cooperation Council countries of a wide range of repressive measures. She emphasizes that high-tech tools not only support their political objectives but are also crucial for future economic growth. Jan Rydzak, affiliated with Ranking Digital Rights, describes the increased use of internet shutdowns to suppress dissent and block communications. He warns that government disdain for international human rights principles “is pushing resistance to the breaking point.” Sarah Gordon, a research assistant at Carnegie, profiles how Myanmar’s military is spreading online propaganda to reinforce troop loyalty, identify dissent, and isolate soldiers from the outside world.
The third section tackles problems of disinformation. Disinformation has become the tool of choice for many illiberal regimes, such as those in Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. They seek to manipulate public opinion to remain in power but are wary of instituting harder-edged repressive methods. In liberal democracies, meanwhile, the threat of disinformation increasingly stems from extreme political movements, particularly far-right groups, which harness social media to propagate falsehoods, spread conspiracy theories, and foment polarization and identity politics. Disinformation strategies involve common tactics: disseminate false narratives (whether pro-government propaganda, anti-vaccine conspiracies, or #StoptheSteal election claims), flood social media channels with competing or distracting information that overwhelms legitimate information sources, and deliberately post offensive content online to provoke or disrupt conversations.
In response to the deluge of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech, governments have started cracking down on platforms—requiring companies to remove unacceptable content faster. Some governments, such as India’s, only give platforms twenty-four hours to remove “manifestly unlawful” content. The EU has adopted an even stricter rule for terrorist content—platforms have one hour to remove offensive material. Many countries have also weakened or discarded intermediate liability protections for platforms. This is an understandable reaction in liberal democracies reeling from false and polarizing content. However, more cynical autocratic regimes have seized upon the opening this trend presents and classified any content critical of their agendas as “fake news” and subject to removal.
A bigger question is how much governments should hold platforms responsible for facilitating the spread of bad information. The evidence is murky, particularly in liberal democracies, about whether the surge in polarizing content is primarily a consequence of social media. While platforms provide useful targets for regulators eager to make a dent in disinformation, new research indicates that false information spreads due to a complex interaction between them and mainstream media outlets. It is insufficient to blame Facebook or Twitter’s poor leadership for the much more complicated proliferation of politically motivated falsehoods.
Agustina Del Campo, who heads the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the University of Palermo in Argentina, contends in her contribution that policymakers have been too quick to label disinformation as a new category of social harm—discarding prior consensus about what constitutes legal speech. She argues that the very notion of distinguishing and taking down disinformation is premised on the shaky assumption that a “single authoritative source” exists “against which all information can be assessed for truth.” Jonathan Corpus Ong, with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains how the internet has accelerated the spread of hate speech against minority communities. He explores the growing levels of disinformation and hate speech targeted against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the United States.
The fourth section presents case studies from two influential countries: India and Indonesia. As two of the world’s largest democracies, both have experienced an illiberal resurgence in recent years. They represent crucial areas of struggle when it comes to determining whether information and communication technologies can enhance good governance or whether they will intensify polarization, identity politics, and autocratic control. Arindrajit Basu, a researcher in India’s Centre for Internet and Society, emphasizes the importance for democracies like India to facilitate uncomfortable conversations around the rule of law and human rights at home in order to geopolitically compete against autocratic adversaries. Sinta Dewi Rosadi, a scholar at Padjadjaran University in Indonesia, scrutinizes digital privacy in that country. She observes that Indonesia’s patchwork of regulations related to surveillance and data privacy has frequently resulted “in the denial of transparency and due process to Indonesian citizens.”
These varying global perspectives shed light on emerging areas of contestation and highlight the complexities, urgency, and dangers involved in the advance of digital technologies and their effects on politics globally. The hope is that their contributions will help policymakers connect local perspectives with global concerns, and that it will bridge the research gap between international conversations taking place in capitals and local realities on the ground that are driving specific trends. Over time, Carnegie expects the network to generate new ideas that will influence relevant policy conversations—whether coming up with innovative approaches to strengthening digital safeguards, offering new regulatory models for the responsible governance of emerging technologies, or confronting concerning policies related to the COVID-19 crisis.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for the support that has made the establishment of the Digital Democracy Network possible. Additional valuable support has come from the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. The authors alone are responsible for the views expressed.
COVID-19 Intensifies Digital Repression in South and Southeast Asia
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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