Like the United States preparing for next year’s snap elections, and the multitude of foreign and domestic online disinformation and propaganda that is likely to accompany them, it is crucial to develop reasonable social and legal protection for groups they will most likely be targeted by digital spin campaigns. While the time is right, we need to create a renewed blueprint for democratic internet governance so that we can protect the diverse range of people affected by current problems in space.
In the last two years Propaganda Research Laboratory at the UT Austin Media Engagement Center, he studied the ways in which various global producers of social media-based propaganda efforts focus their strategies. One of the key findings of the lab in the US was that these individuals – working for a number of political parties, domestic and foreign governments, political consulting firms and PR groups – often use a combination of private platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram and more open ones like Facebook and YouTube in offers to manipulate minority voting blocs in specific regions or cities. For example, we found that they pay special attention to spreading political misinformation among them immigrant and diaspora communities in Florida, North Carolina and other swing states.
While some of this content comes from U.S. groups hoping to encourage one-candidate voting, much of it has obscure origin and less than clear intentions. It is not uncommon, for example, to encounter content that allegedly or appears to originate from users in China, Venezuela, Russia, or India, and some of them have the hallmarks of organized government manipulation campaigns in those countries.
This is perhaps surprising given what we now know about authoritarian leaning offers of foreign entities to influence political issues in the United States and various other countries around the world. Both China and Russia continue to work to control Big Tech and, consequently, the experiences of their population with the Internet. And indeed, our lab has gathered evidence of campaigns in which American people of Chinese descent — especially first- or second-generation immigrants — are targeted by sophisticated digital propaganda campaigns with the characteristics of similar efforts outside Beijing. We saw suspicious profiles on social media (thousands of which later on Twitter deleted) exploit anti-American and anti-democratic narratives – and effusively pro-Beijing after the assassination of George Floyd, the Capitol uprising, the Hong Kong protests and other key events. In our interviews and digital field research around the 2020 U.S. presidential election, we met people of Arab, Colombian, Brazilian, and Indian descent who were the target of similar efforts. We also spoke to propagandists who were open about their efforts to manipulate wider immigrants, the diaspora, and minority groups by, say, falsely believing that Joe Biden was a socialist and therefore should not support him.
Although the influence of control of China, Russia or other authoritarian regimes own internet networks “in the country” which is widely reported, the emergence of propaganda campaigns by these regimes clearly resonates beyond the borders of a nation-state. These efforts are affecting communities associated with these countries living elsewhere – including here in the US – and countries seeking these undemocratic superpowers to show them how to manage (or dominate) their own digital information ecosystems.
Russia, China and other authoritarian states are one step ahead with their segmented versions of the Internet, which are based on autocratic principles, monitoring and suppressing freedom of speech and individual rights. These control campaigns spill over into other information spaces around the world. For example, a study of the Slovak thinktank GLOBSEC was found The influence of the Kremlin in the digital ecosystems of several EU Member States. They argue that both passive and active Russian information machinations affect public perception of governance and, ultimately, undermine European democracy.
However, democracies have also failed to master efforts to co-opt and control the Internet. After years of naive belief that the technology sector can and should to regulate And itself, culminating in a Capitol uprising fueled by social media, global policymakers and other stakeholders are now wondering what a more democratic, human rights-oriented internet should look like.
If the Biden administration wants to make up for it renewed commitment transatlantic cooperation digital sphere management should be at the center of attention. As autocratic states evolve and consolidate their influence, democracies must catch up quickly. While the EU led efforts to protect the individual privacy rights and the fight against misinformation and hate speech online, the task is not yet complete. Even as legal efforts like Digital Services Act i rules in the field of artificial intelligence, neither the EU nor the US can afford to do it alone. Democracies thrive in strong alliances and risk falling apart without them.
We need a renewed blueprint for democratic internet governance. It is an unprecedented undertaking, because our societies do not have comparable legal or political experiences that can used effectively as a template for digital efforts. For example, the phenomena created by the digital revolution challenge our understanding of individual rights and force us to redefine their equivalent for the 21st century. Does it mean freedom of speech automatic access an audience that includes hundreds of thousands of users? What about users who might be particularly vulnerable to manipulation or harassment? Do we protect enough of the right to privacy online – a space where various suspicious organizations continue to follow our every move freely? Defining answers to these and other urgent questions will not be easy, especially as finding them requires collaboration between a number of often conflicting stakeholders: citizens / users, public officials, civil society groups, academics and, most importantly, the technology sector.