According to the recently released annual Freedom on the Net 2018 report, democracy the world over is in peril, because freedom on the internet has been compromised. Several unsettling trends emerged that contributed to this rise in digital authoritarianism. The uncontrolled collection of personal data, and the distribution of misinformation, fake news, and propaganda, have all contributed to a climate of paranoia and fear online. Of the 65 countries examined in the study, 26 of them (including the United States) exhibited an alarming deterioration in internet freedom. The respective governments are the worst abusers of freedom online, including the US government, with Donald Trump being deemed the worst perpetrator of fake news.
A prominent voice calling for the accountability of governments compromising internet freedom is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion David Kaye. Having held the position since 2014, Kaye has submitted numerous reports to various facets of the United Nations dealing with everything from freedom of expression in the digital age to online content regulation. In a recent interview, he called Donald Trump “the worst perpetrator of false information” in the United States. Coming from a senior figure within the United Nations, the problematic implications of this conclusion go without saying.
Yet, this isn’t the first time a senior U.N. official has singled out the Trump administration for the dissemination of fake news and attacks on the press. Just last August, the outgoing U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein stated that Trump’s anti-press rhetoric could lead to violence against journalists and journalistic self-censorship.
Governments and leaders of nations, Donald Trump included, are the worst perpetrators of misinformation and fake news. That said, in the name of democratic survival, how can society as a whole contend with this disconcerting trajectory? The answer is multifaceted. Despite the challenges and increased risk of being targeted, journalists must actively cover the issue of fake news and misinformation, calling out the offenders whenever possible. Lest it is forgotten, one of the tenets of a healthy democracy is freedom of the press. If that freedom becomes jeopardized, then journalists play an important role in combating fake news, misinformation, and propaganda, irrespective of the cost. It was both poignant and fitting, that Time magazine chose “The Guardians”, a group of journalists as its annual ‘Person of the Year’.
Likewise, tech companies and social media platforms play a vital role in combating the spread of misinformation and fake news. The big players like Google, Facebook, and Twitter all must contribute in the broader fight, specifically against misinformation. These platforms can implement measures to detect and call-out fake news and disinformation from foreign interference, bots, and trolls.
Ahead of the European elections in May 2019, the European Commission is calling on social media giants to step up with improvements in tackling bots and spam accounts. Yet hitherto, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been reluctant to fully embrace transparency – not sharing their respective data with the likes of election monitors or independent fact-checkers.
In addition, events this past year such as Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal have demonstrated how the internet can be used for political exploitation. The fact that the personal information from tens of millions of social media users was employed to disrupt democracy ought to give one pause. More pointedly, it has become evident that this sort of tactic is being used to undermine the democratic process throughout the world.
However, despite the revelations regarding the problematic state of democracies in our digital age, all hope cannot be lost. Private citizens must hold companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google accountable for compromising their personal data. A demand can be made for transparency and a commitment to more democratic values. It is a fundamental human right to enjoy peace, prosperity, and personal freedom. Democracy is dependent upon that fact.