By Joseph Verardo
Many governments strictly control cyberspace, and it is having a devastating impact on human rights and democracy. In 2021, at least 34 countries shut off the internet. This is because social media has become an effective means of exposing human rights violations in real time, and governments know this. The internet has become a tool for people to share their struggles with the world and organize around the cause of freedom. It also has become a tool for more powerful governments to spread propaganda while flicking a switch to deprive their people of basic communications and access to the rest of the world. Thus, allowing them to crackdown on their people in silence.
On July 11, 2021 protests broke out in over 50 cities across the island of Cuba. Public demonstrations up until this point had been rare, with the government quick to crackdown on dissent. Cuban protesters chanted “libertad” (freedom), “abajo la dictadura” (down with the dictatorship) and “patria y vida” (homeland and life), a play off of Fidel Castro’s slogan “patria o muerte” (homeland or death). The Cuban government deployed the police and military to repress protesters, arresting over 1,400 people. In addition to physical repression and violence against demonstrators, the Cuban government shut down the internet for the entire country.
The Cuban government has complete control over the internet. Access to social media sites were disrupted, and Cubans were unable to communicate with each other or the outside world. Turning off the internet has become a popular and desperate tactic for authoritarian governments to prevent dissenting voices from sharing information that is unfavorable to those in power.
Following Hurricane Ian, protests broke out over a lack of basic freedoms, electricity, food and supplies. In the middle of the night the country went dark. Recorded internet traffic plummeted, while the military was deployed to confront the protests. People could not actively share accounts of military violence after a few initial videos made their way across social media. People on the outside could not reach their friends and family on the island following a deadly hurricane, because an authoritarian government had shut off the internet.
During the July 11 protests, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel called for loyalists to take to the streets to violently confront protesters. He labeled government critics as “terrorists” on social media. Despite calling for violence and using social media to spread propaganda as police and military used force against peaceful protesters, his access to social media remained unhindered. While most Cubans did not have access to these platforms at all.
Cuba implemented draconian laws following the peaceful July 11 protests. Under Decree 35, criticism of the regime is considered an act of terrorism. Young people are being sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for their involvement in the protests.
Iran has a dark history of shutting down the internet amid protests over human rights and democracy. In September,protests erupted across the country over the killing of Mahsa Amini. Mahsa Amini died after being taken into custody by Iran’s “morality police” over improper attire. Amini was sent to a “re-education camp” to learn how to dress in adherence to the government’s doctrine. Since the tragedy, Mahsa Amini has become a symbol for Iranians, especially young women, in their struggle for freedom and autonomy. #MahsaAmini went viral. As did videos of the protests. And the regime’s subsequent crackdown on them.
Iranian police responded with violence. Videos surfaced online of Iranian police firing on protesters during a wave of violence caused by draconian crackdown on dissent. Videos of protesters confronting police forces, causing them to retreat due to the sheer crowd sizes, also made the rounds on social media. These protests spread to over 80 cities across Iran. Where women cut their hair in a display of civil disobedience against the Khamenei regime’s totalitarian treatment of women in the country.
To hide the protests and crackdowns from the world, the Iranian government shutdown access to the internet, and disrupted cell service. WhatsApp and Instagram are two of the only social media platforms Iranians have access to. Both were shut down amidst the protests. The Iranian government used the same tactic in 2019, when it turned off the internet during nationwide protests, and the government’s response with deadly repression.
Twitter has been banned in Iran since nationwide protests following the questionable re-election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Since then, the Iranian government has amassed thousands of pro-regime accounts on social media platforms. A digital army to wage war in cyberspace. While the vast majority of Iranians do not have access to share their struggle on social media, the regime has an online army allowed to freely spread propaganda for the government.
In addition to Twitter, other platforms banned by the Iranian government include Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, WhatsApp, WordPress, Blogger and Blogspot.
Weaponizing the Internet
This repression goes even further than turning off the internet. In many parts of the world people have the right to post their opinions online without facing legal consequences. But in countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Iran, Belarus, China, North Korea and many others, any criticism of or disagreement with government doctrine is illegal. People face time in prison or even death for it.
In Syria under their newest cyber law, critics can face 15 years in prison and massive fines for criticism of the regime. Russia has increasingly punished critics of its invasion of Ukraine. Embracing totalitarianism to squash opposition to its imperialistic and failing efforts in Ukraine.
In Saudi Arabia, anyone who criticizes the Saudi government faces the death penalty.
The military junta in Myanmar shut off the internet amidst protests following the military coup in February, 2021. The military overthrew the government due to their proxy party losing seats in the nation’s general elections. Facebook and Twitter were used by citizens to report on the coup as it was occurring.
According to the United Nations, the Venezuelan government committed crimes against humanity including the incarceration, torture and execution of thousands of Venezuelans following protests over the controversial and disputed re-election of president Nicolas Maduro. The government shut off the internet, and violently crackdown on critics of the regime. There have been no repercussions online for the regime for the violence, or the misinformation that it used to justify these actions.
India, considered to be the world’s largest democracy, is also number one in shutting off the internet. The Indian government shuts down the internet to stifle protests and mute dissenting voices.
Should these governments have unlimited and unhindered access to spread propaganda across the internet, while their people face imprisonment or death for posting opinions contrary to their oppressors? Why should these governments be allowed to post propaganda demonizing the opposition, defending state violence against protesters, and denying war crimes; while purposely trying to confuse and misdirect their people and the world?
What Social Media Companies and the International Community Can Do
Tech companies need to play an active role in ensuring their platforms are not being used as weapons against oppressed populations. Authoritarian governments have free rein to spread misinformation across their platforms. Access to which can be taken away at a moment’s notice from their nation’s people. These governments also comb through social media posts for criticism of their governments and use their findings as justification to persecute dissent. Tech companies need to be more vigilant to ensure that their platforms are not being used to help governments violate human rights.
Twitter and other tech companies have policies prohibiting posts promoting, defending or denying violent acts. But this has not been applied to many world leaders with a history of spreading propaganda promoting, defending and inspiring acts of violence and repression through social media.
Tech executives should consider holding leaders accountable for depriving their people of uncensored internet access. If an entire nation cannot practice free speech on these platforms due to government restrictions, why should their leaders be entitled to these benefits? Tech leaders could promote free speech by limiting access to the platform for oppressors until it is restored for their people. Why should leaders and government entities not be subject to their own rules while using social media?
Until this is addressed, tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Microsoft are involuntary accomplices of authoritarian governments. But face becoming willing accomplices as long as they let this abuse and manipulation of their platforms continue. Tech companies can be leaders in protecting human rights by taking action against bad actors. Authoritarian governments have an unfair advantage in the information war. While freedom movements directly face persecution for simply sharing information on these sites. This advantage is given entirely to these governments by western social media companies. No government that shuts down the internet or imprisons people for their social media posts, should be allowed to post freely on these platforms.
It is important that the international community, civil society and the private sector work to ensure people have access to the internet. SpaceX’s Starlink becoming available to the Ukrainian people during the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown that it is possible to provide internet connection to millions of people when it is needed the most. But this only scratches the surface as people in dozens of other countries can be deprived of internet access at the discretion of those in power. Providing emergency internet access must become a priority to counter tyranny in cyberspace.
Joseph Verardo is the President of YEP-NYC and coordinator of NSF CyberCorps at SUNY RF at Binghamton University. His work includes serving on local, state and federal committees and commissions. Joseph specialized in international relations and American government at Stony Brook University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s degrees in public policy and technological systems management. Views are his own.