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The digital phenomenon and emerging technologies have led to a revolution in the democratic process, enabling a higher engagement of individuals in their countries’ political and public life.

By making “the political arena more open and accessible”, digital technologies have offered a chance for anyone – and not just the perceived elites – to access information and to participate in shaping public discussions on different topics, from national and global economy to movements requesting a wider protection of human rights at domestic level. This faster and easier exchange of opinions is even filling the distance between politics and the population at large. Indeed, the digitalisation, the spreading of the internet and the use of social media platforms have led to the empowerment of the most marginalised groups of the society by allowing them to express their points of view and by making their voice heard to influence policy-makers agenda both at domestic and international level. The internet and social media platforms are, therefore and in principle, fostering “a more inclusive, participatory and representative public square”. But are they actually advancing the democratic process?

The reality shows that digital technologies, particularly the almost unregulated use of the internet and social media platforms, also pose several challenges that can have a huge repercussion on the enjoyment of people’s human rights and on the democratic process as a whole. The question is, therefore, how are the internet and social media platforms used to impact democracy? Are the governments using these technologies to influence the result of democratic elections? And if yes, how?

New and emerging technologies used as instruments of repression from governments

The internet and social media platforms are increasingly used by governments and states’ authorities (and not only by authoritarian regimes) for their political purposes. Indeed, these tools are, in some cases, used to repress political dissents and opponents; to publicly discredit journalists, media outlets, activists, and human rights defenders, among others, with the potential violation of a wide range of human rights and, consequently, with a negative impact on the democratic process as a whole. Internet shutdown, the spreading of fake news directly by some governments, and the adoption by states’ authorities of draconian laws to restrict online freedom of expression and opinion, inter alia, represent a quite common phenomenon in every region of the world.

This is the case of Nicaragua, where since the protests of 2018, “the regime of President Daniel Ortega […] asserted control over the online landscape through the manipulation of information, politically motivated use of copyright claims to remove content, and new legislation that severely punishes users who disseminate supposedly false or harmful content”. During the last Presidential elections (in November 2021) the story has not changed.

Similarly, an immediate and sudden collapse of the Internet happened in Myanmar, after the February 2021 military coup: “[a]s part of its attempt to crush dissent and maintain power, the military junta shut down internet service, blocked social media platforms and websites, seized control of the telecommunications infrastructure, and ramped up intrusive surveillance.”. According to Freedom House, the authorities also banned virtual private networks (VPNs) and used excessive force, violence and detentions to sanction those users that expressed online support to the democratic movement.

In Uganda, the Government imposed severe digital restrictions during the general elections of January 2021 “to manipulate the online information environment”; and in the five days leading up to the elections, State’s authorities ordered the internet shutdown, including blocking most of the social media platform.

Likewise, during the Presidential elections held in August 2020 in Belarus, the dictator Lukashenka has “initiated a nationwide shutdown of the internet that lasted for 61 hours” on the election-day. The Government has also adopted additional measures “to limit access to information during the election period and ensuing protests, including by blocking political and civil society websites, forcing content critical of the government to be removed”.

However, this is not the only way in which governments can repress their political opposition. For instance, as recently highlighted by Human Rights Watch, public and private companies are increasingly developing surveillance systems and spyware, like the well-known Pegasus software (produced by the Israeli company NSO Group), which are sold to governments to silence raising social movements and to monitor and repress journalists, political opponents, activists, human rights defenders and all those that expose abuses and violations committed by states’ authorities.

Along these lines, according to the study conducted by Forbidden Stories on Pegasus in 2021, this software has been licensed to several countries around the world, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates. As denounced by several NGOs and human rights organisations between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, the spyware has been used against Palestinians human rights defenders (including some of the members of the six Palestinian NGOs declared “terrorist organisations” by Israel last October); against four Kazakh activists; and two human rights activists in Bahrain and Jordan; against several members of the civil society in El Salvador; and against two Polish opposition figures before the 2019 parliamentary elections. As Human Rights Watch stressed, “Governments should implement a moratorium on the sale, export, transfer, and use of surveillance technology until human rights safeguards are in place”.

What will the future bring?

These cases clearly show that in different situations the internet and social media platforms have been (and still are) controlled by governments and states’ authorities for a common and unique purpose: to keep political power, to deceive democracy and to maintain a distorted status quo, by repressing political opposition and dissent and by silencing raising social movements. Moreover, the increased development of surveillance systems and spyware and their use by governments and states’ authorities is only a more worrying trend that will grow more prevalent if the state of play remains as it is, namely a limited regulation of the internet, social media platforms and these new surveillance systems, and a lack of knowledge (and therefore of potential reaction) of the population which might be affected by these technologies.

Better and clearer regulations on access to the internet; management of social media platforms; and development, sell and use of surveillance systems and spyware, both at domestic and global level, are more than needed, as advocated by NGOs, human rights organisations and activists. Not only technical regulations, but also a comprehensive policy developed from a human rights-based approach, thus considering the promotion and protection of individuals’ human rights, particularly the online freedoms of expression and opinion and the right to effectively and meaningfully participate to the public and political life. The achievement of this result, however, would only be possible with common efforts from all stakeholders of the international community, including states and their political will – which might not be feasible in the near future. The crucial question would therefore remain whether the internet, social media platforms and surveillance systems are worth the challenges the international community has to address to make sure these technologies help and serve the purposes of democracy.

A cura di Serena Zanirato


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