The Orwellian trend of social media surveillance

Published: February 21, 2020
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A Reuters illustrative image

A Reuters illustrative image

A Reuters illustrative image The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at ali@policy.hu

Months after reports of Pakistan using the services of a controversial Canada-based company, Sandvine, to monitor internet traffic, we have seen sweeping new social media regulations come into effect. While these developments have raised concerns regarding the freedom of expression within Pakistan, such attempts to assert control over social media is part of a much broader phenomenon.

With the resurgence of populist and authoritarian tendencies around the world, freedom of expression — be it of the independent media or that of ordinary citizens — has been experiencing a reversal. The potential of the internet and various social media platforms, which had earlier been hailed for ushering in the era of digitally-enabled democratisation, has now been severely constrained.

The assumption that the internet and social media will further democratic impulses and free flow of information have proven to be overly optimistic. While these new technologies have been used to create political mobilisation and awareness, these same tools have also been used to further persecute minorities, to spread disinformation and even undermine dissenting views. We are now also seeing many governments using sophisticated technology to monitor their citizens’ behaviour on social media.

The DC-based thinktank, Freedom House, has recently released its “Freedom on the Net 2019: The Crisis of Social Media” report. It is worth noting that Freedom House itself has a contested reputation, as do its varied rankings concerning the state of ‘freedoms’ around the world. Noam Chomsky and other academics have criticised this entity for reflecting foreign policy priorities of certain groups within the American establishment, especially those with neo-conservative or neoliberal convictions.

Freedom House rankings are not an irrefutable representation of the state of ‘freedom’ around the world. This entity may quite possibly be accentuating certain freedom infringements while paying less attention to others. However, it is still worth noting how this entity has noted abuse of social media surveillance by most of the countries included in its recent survey.

Freedom House found that 47 out of the 65 countries it assessed during 2019 had arrested social media users for their political, social, or religious remarks. Even in countries with explicit safeguards for fundamental freedoms, there are already reports of abuse. In the UK, for example, London Police reportedly monitored nearly 9,000 activists from across the political spectrum, including many without any criminal history. Freedom House has also called out the US for setting a dangerous precedent by monitoring social media accounts of visa applicants.

However, the Freedom House report was most alarmed by the aggressive monitoring designed to detect and deter protests in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran and China were also singled out for creating dedicated teams of thousands of individuals who monitor online speech and report problematic content and accounts to authorities. Pakistan, too, was taken to task for blocking political, socio-cultural websites, and for other acts of persecution of social media users.

Freedom House may be criticised for taking a harder stance against the use of surveillance by states that have a problematic relationship with the US. Yet, the fact remains that the growing trend of states using the guise of combating extremism, preventing hate speech, or ‘anti-national’ content to muzzle their populace is a problematic development which does merit further attention.

There is a rationale for intelligence gathering and being vigilant concerning the threat of social media being used to spread disinformation, enable terrorism, or even manipulate elections. However, there is little justification when the loosely defined imperative of ensuring national security becomes an excuse to undertake mass and indiscriminatory surveillance in order to prevent criticism and quash dissent, or to use disinformation campaigns launched via social media itself to discredit opponents.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2020.

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