A Modern Revolution: Why democracy is ruling the Internet

In early 2009 as the Taliban was gaining military hold in North West Pakistan, a 12-year-old girl went undercover to write a blog about her fears living under the fundamentalist political movement. It was early January and the Taliban’s ban on girls attending school had been enforced. “I had a terrible dream yesterday,” she wrote, in her first post. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’.”

Almost two years later, a young 26-year-old man was preparing for his day as a street vendor selling fruit in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, in Tunisia. His family’s sole provider, he was working without a permit when the local police approached him and ordered him to hand over his wares. When he refused he was harassed by the officer. Humiliated, the young man decided to take an action, which would trigger one of the most profound online political movements of this generation.

Just months ago, a seven year old girl from Syria sent a tweet with 10 simple words, “I… Hate…War. And the world has forgotten us. Aleppo”. In a second, the devastation and violence that was swallowing a country and its people was humanized, with the voice of a little girl.

This is the power of democracy in the tech age.

In an era shrouded in uncertainty and during a time when the role of policy online is very much still up for debate, it’s evident that despite the current state of foreign regimes and their approach to the Internet, democracy and freedom of speech is breaking through. In order to ensure that it wins we must persist to uphold the principles and foundations upon which both are built.

When authoritarianism takes hold

The reality is that while we can always fight for democracy online, authoritarianism still holds a strong place in the digital sphere. The tainted human rights of citizens in countries from Myanmar to Eritrea spill over into their repressed exposure to the flow of digital media.

In early 2016, North Korea announced it would block Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as well as a number of South Korean websites in a bid to further censor the content available to its citizens and control the information they absorb online. And that’s just for those who do have the opportunity to be connected.

“It is unclear how many Internet-connected devices are used in North Korea. But it’s likely that the number of Internet users is small.” writes Tong-Hyung Kim and Youkyung Lee of the Associated Press. According to So Young Seo, a researcher at South Korea’s state-run Korea Information Society Development Institute, the country has only 1,024 Internet Protocol addresses for a population of 25 million. For those who are online, it’s a highly censored and closely monitored experience, consisting mostly of Intranet based content published by the sovereign state.

China is another country overwhelmed with political censorship, and its impact on tech is perhaps more widely reported than any other communist nation. In 2010, the government issued a white paper on the Internet. In the paper, the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China states that, “Along with the robust growth and spread of the Internet, profound changes have taken place in and will continue to impact the country’s production, daily work, education and lifestyle.” However, it’s evident the nation is still pushing an authoritarian agenda when it comes to the online flow of information and the availability of that content to Chinese citizens, and recent developments prove just that. Last year Freedom House reported that “China was the year’s worst abuser of internet freedom”.

Despite the tyrannical force by many — mostly communist — sovereign states, civilians are pushing the limits to drive e-democracy now more than ever before.

In examples from the Arab Spring uprisings to more recent worldwide movements such as the Women’s March. The latter was initiated with just one Facebook post by a retired lawyer and first-time activist in Hawaii.

Teresa Shook told the Washington Post that she “wasn’t that political” but she was moved to act after Donald Trump was elected President. “Something happened in me with this administration that woke up my love for people and humanity and what this country stands for,” Shook said.

When it became evident that Trump would win, Shook turned to a pro-Hillary Clinton support group on Facebook to voice her concerns and put the idea of a women’s march out to other likeminded women. She also started a Facebook group and when she went to bed that evening “a few dozen friends had said they would attend”. When she went online the following day, over 10,000 people had joined the group, pledging to take action, and from there the Women’s March was born.

On January 21, 2017 an estimated five million participants marched for equality, diversity, and inclusion across the globe. A powerful show of democracy driven by online action.

And so while authoritarianism may rule in some highly censored nations, it remains that democracy is dominating on a global scale in the tech age.

When the right to speak goes wrong

When we open the digital playing field to free speech we inevitably find that, as in any community, not all voices will be positive, or promote action that will lead to a better society. While we may not all welcome or invite the promotion of hate or violence or negative action online, it is highly present, primarily across social media, a communications platform that is still struggling to define its place in policy and regulation.

Is authoritarianism taking over democracy in this digital age? No. Is it right to enact a slightly authoritative approach for people who are using the medium to create evil? Yes. Why? Well, this is highly subjective and gets down to the roots of the meaning behind democracy. Like any democratic society, when you open up to give everyone the freedom to speak their mind, you have to take the good with the bad. But what about the ugly? There is no world in which we can actively welcome democracy in the digital age but repress the actions and opinions that we don’t agree with. That would not be a democratic state. But what about the acts and opinions that threaten our human rights?

And so our focus should be on how we can manage this share of voice. How we can support a free and equal agenda while closely monitoring the conversation online.

And this begs the questions, what defines an act or opinion that is ‘ugly’. In November 2016, Twitter made a somewhat surprising decision to ban a number of accounts owned by white supremacists and members of the alt-right movement. In the past, the social media platform was largely criticized for its loosely enforced regulations — from terrorist propaganda to high-school bullying, the company believed in the right to free speech and took a moderate approach to what was removed. These recent developments stunned many and riled others. Richard Spencer held one of the accounts that Twitter blocked late last year. The vocal neo-Nazi and head of the National Policy Institute, told the LA Times it was a violation of his free speech and that Twitter should “issue some kind of apology and make it clear they are not going to crack down on viewpoints.”

So where is the line between censorship and appropriate regulation? It comes back to what is right and acceptable offline in a democratic sovereign state. Just because we believe in free speech, do we allow prejudicial opinions and hateful language in the workplace and in schools? Just because we don’t allow it, does that broach the question of whether we’re living in an authoritarian nation? No. Do we accuse television networks of censorship when nudity and offensive language is suppressed? No. It simply means that like all governed societies there are regulations that are placed on our right to free speech and expression in order to maintain and promote what is central to the idea of democracy — equality, freedom, and justice.

As Alice Marwick so aptly put it, “How did we get to the point where Twitter eggs spewing anti-Semitic insults are seen as defenders of free speech? But a commitment to freedom of speech above all else presumes an idealistic version of the Internet that no longer exists.”

“As long as we consider any content moderation to be censorship, minority voices will continue to be drowned out by their aggressive majority counterparts.”

Whose responsibility is it anyway?

It cannot be ignored that the world order has changed. The nation state no longer has a monopoly on collective action. People have power. That has made regulating the online space tough — but all the more important.

Since its establishment, social media platforms have had user agreements that allow for the ability to remove content that is in breach of the platform regulations, as was implemented in the case of Richard Spencer. And yet a clearly defined foreign policy has been widely absent.

So if the idea is to monitor and regulate whilst still promoting a democratic and free agenda, is it the responsibility of tech to establish a foreign policy? Social media platforms have long struggled with this concept, and rightfully so. There is no precedent for how to manage the ever-growing ocean of political movements, terrorist recruitment, human rights breaches, and privacy invasion, online.

However, a lack of precedent doesn’t mean you can forfeit responsibility. Take Facebook for example — when you reshape society in such a transformative way you inevitably take on a great deal of responsibility. In the same way a person accepting a career in elite football becomes a mentor to seven year olds, it comes with the territory.

As the world moves closer and closer to driving advocacy and political organizing exclusively online, taking ownership of this governance is becoming more important than ever. As David Kirkpatrick states in Foreign Policy, “Facebook and Twitter have almost overnight become the world’s collective soapboxes, petition sheets, and meeting halls.”

Kirkpatrick also states that in so many political uprisings over recent years, including the Arab Spring, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Spain, Israel, India, Britain, the United States, “Facebook is a common thread in all these movements — it has become the new infrastructure of protest.”

The increasing use of social media to advocate and organize around the world in itself warrants the need for foreign policy. And yet it’s not just about advocacy.

For years terrorist organizations have used social media to promote their agenda, attract global visibility into their actions, and recruit civilians from around the world to join their cause. As hard as it is to accept, they are very effective users of online media. Their ability to infiltrate social media channels and demand share of voice is both scary and notable. Brendan I. Koerner, Contributing Editor of Wired refers to it as a “mastery of modern digital tools”.

“The Islamic State recognized the power of digital media early on,” writes Koerner. “Never before in history have terrorists had such easy access to the minds and eyeballs of millions.”

The truth is, the nature of democracy in the tech age means that online political movements and digital advocacy are increasing at a rapid rate and tech companies need to keep up.

Why we all need to foster democracy in the digital age

As Reinhold Niebuhr wisely stated, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

When Malala Yousafzai posted her first blog, she showed the world how important it was to fight for education, even when living under the rule of terror.

When Mohamed Bouazizi stormed to the front of a government building in Tunisia and set himself on fire, his desperate act of rebellion moved a generation. Around the country thousands of young men and women turned to the most powerful tool at their disposal, the Internet, to ignite protests that forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee, and provoked the uprisings that would become known as the Arab Spring.

When Bana al-Abed turned to Twitter as a means of bringing attention to the atrocities in her beloved Syria, she humanized a deadly civil war in a way that no other medium or entity could achieve. Bana turned the constant images of air strikes hitting the bleak grey landscape of a ruined Aleppo, and made it personal. All of a sudden, there was a little girl in a pink sweater in the midst of it all, and she was using her own words, her own voice — asking the world the pay attention.

If it weren’t for the overwhelming power of democracy in the tech age, even in countries dominated by authoritarian rule, we would never have heard about a young Malala and her courage in standing up to the rule of terror, we would not have had the platform that launched the crusade that was the Arab Spring, and the face of the Syrian civil war would not have been an innocent seven-year-old girl named Bana. And that alone would be an injustice.

Despite the prominence of authoritarianism in the tech age, democracy still dominates. And so long as we as a society continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible and what’s right, the Internet will remain our most powerful catalyst for revolutionary change.