How Authoritarians Exploit Social Media

Authoritarian bigotry is fed by an attack on truth and free expression.

Posted Sep 17, 2020

Xenophobic nationalists like Father Coughlan used the new medium of radio to broadcast his hate-filled rants in the 1930s. So the appropriation of social media by political extremists today is analogous.

We are all vulnerable to such propaganda that plays on our basic tendency to divide the world into in groups and out groups presumably because favoring kin groups facilitated survival in the past.

The damaging effects of social media on political life are apparent from underdeveloped countries like Myanmar to the two largest economies in the world, China and the US.

Myanmar Genocide

Military attacks on Rohingya villages forced survivors to flee the country in 2019. What was particularly startling about this event was the fact that the government was led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

A primary source of the genocidal rage was Facebook. The country had just got hooked up to the Internet and Facebook was the main site through which residents accessed their information.

Their Facebook feeds contained many false and hateful narratives about the Rohingya, atrocities committed against Buddhists, and their ties to Islamic terrorism. The Facebook algorithm amplified these hate-filled rants, offering a breeding ground for fake news hostile to the Rohinga.

Facebook was reportedly aware of the problem but opted not to hire sufficient staff in the country to set about removing some of the inflammatory false narratives.

Myanmar is a cautionary tale of what may happen when propaganda displaces journalism. Of course, that was not planned. The same can hardly be said of China's Internet repression of the Uighurs.

China and the Great Wall of Repression

Tiananmen Square involved a crackdown on protesters by the Chinese government in which hundreds of students are believed to have lost their lives. This embarrassing incident has been expunged from official history and does not appear in Chinese Internet searches. Government censorship uses an electronic firewall—the Great Firewall of China—that is supported by American software including that of Microsoft that accepted this compromise to stay in China after Google withdrew on ethical grounds.

The firewall blocks widely-used Internet platforms such as Google search, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Meanwhile, Chinese Internet platforms are required by law to enact onerous self-censorship practices that stifle criticism of the Chinese political system.

The Chinese Communist Party uses electronic surveillance to orchestrate a repression of the Turkish-speaking Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

About a million Uighurs are currently imprisoned in internment camps, known as “reeducation centers.” Here they are indoctrinated and subject to waterboarding and other forms of torture if they resist. The lesson material draws on long speeches delivered by President Xi Jinping, who must be repeatedly thanked for the brainwashing exercise.

Those who are incarcerated in the camps fell afoul of the regime for being “religious extremists,” traveling abroad for work or leisure, visiting a mosque, or simply receiving calls from abroad.

Muslims are forced to install spyware on their phones and their movements can be tracked at checkpoints that use facial recognition software. Perhaps, for this reason, beards and veils are banned.

Communist party officials spend days in Uighur homes taking note of possible problems such as religious belief, alcoholism, or poor personal hygiene. Individual Internet use is monitored.

The Orwellian scariness of the Uighur repression is one issue. Just as frightening, the Chinese have exported their government surveillance software to like-minded authoritarian states such as Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Vietnam. We should not be too surprised that similar tactics have shown up in the US, where police use Internet traffic to snoop on the movements of political activists. Of course, the FBI has long been doing much the same under cover of the Patriot Act, which facilitated surveillance of US citizens.

The assault on privacy is one issue. The assault on truth on the Internet is even more serious.

US Propaganda and “Alternative Facts”

Operating in a realm where information is published without editorial supervision, government leaders such as Britain's Boris Johnson and Donald Trump broadcast brazen lies that confuse the public. Orwellian phrases like “alternative facts” have been used as though the truth no longer existed or was above political manipulation.

Whether in the most oppressive countries, like China or North Korea, or in ostensibly freer places, authoritarians are spreading dogma and untruths almost without check, and their main tools are the Internet and social media.