IRI Expert Reflects on Protest Movements in the Age of Information Manipulation for the Diplomatic Courier
By Angel Sharma
A telling sign of democracy at work is how a government responds to public dissent. 2019 was marked by more mass protests in more places around the world than any other 12 months in history, however, the results of such movements have been less than remarkable when compared to other historic waves of public outcry. Mass protests have been instrumental in pushing for government reform, voicing political concerns, and calling for international attention to key human rights violations. Like the waves of protests before them—if enduring—the current round could lead to positive change. In the new age of rapid, state-sponsored manipulation of information and media, the once-promising tactic of public demonstrations is encountering severe limitations in achieving intended results in a timely manner.
Unlike what collective action did in Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring to make prominent statements in favor for democratic values, the rapid and digital age of information has allowed repressive governments to push counter-narratives to protest agendas at a tremendously fast pace. China, for example, launched a grand-scale disinformation campaign on several social media platforms against the Hong Kong protestors, even referring to them as members of ISIS and cockroaches. Twitter and Facebook uncovered hundreds of accounts and pages originating from China, which were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.” While the Hong Kong protests attracted over 1.7 million people to march against an unfavorable extradition bill and call for greater democratic reform, China matched this veracity to strongly shape the protest narrative for its own gains, sow discord in Hong Kong, and influence the international perception of the protests. The CCP and other actors used information warfare to shape the narrative about the protest—painting it as illegitimate—and thereby avoiding international pressure while achieving domestic political objectives.
Democracies are susceptible to such practices as well. The Indian government utilized communication shutdowns to control information regarding the repeal of Article 370 and the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA). While India erupted with protests last autumn following the revocation of Kashmir’s special status that granted semi-autonomy to the region, the CAA triggered further nationwide demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of citizens claiming the new citizenship law as discriminatory against Muslims and thereby violating India’s secular constitution. As a response, the Indian government enacted the longest running internet shutdown in any democracy, and imposed archaic anti-assembly penal code provisions to discourage dissent. To fill the communication void this caused, Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) affiliated news sites worked diligently to push out counter-narratives against protestors by labeling them as “anti-national.” India’s chokehold on internet freedom, expression, and assembly signals a dangerous possibility for democratic countries to consider authoritarian approaches to civil disobedience.
Instead of working towards considering public demands, whether due to local or international pressure, governments around the world are making remarkable headway in discrediting and intimidating people from joining popular movements. While this may not be surprising, the way in which governments are openly conducting information warfare is alarming. With social media serving as a primary platform through which transitioning countries share news, government sponsored content is infiltrating these channels at an increasingly fast face. Despite recent actions from Facebook and Twitter to better tackle disinformation, there’s still a gap in follow-up once disinformation has been spotted and the demonstrated impact of interventions that aim to fill this gap.
Information manipulation can only succeed if the intended audience accepts it. In efforts to mitigate this at the civic level, education institutions should be better utilized to support media and digital literacy by enhancing critical thinking skills that impact how citizens consume content. This includes identifying the publishing platform of the article and potential benefits to the publisher, checking internal biases, cross-referencing other publications, and tracking the circulation of an article to strengthen the capacity to evaluate message credibility and quality. By embedding media literacy principles into educational institutions, a younger generation of readers can play an active role in discrediting misinformation
Additionally, trainings for media professionals that focus on producing engaging content that attract citizens to facts rather than disinformation or misinformation, coupled with tools to verify information and sources, are instrumental in building integrity in the content on both digital and traditional media spaces. This approach was utilized in the International Republican Institute’s most recent work in Ecuador, where the Institute worked with journalists ahead of the 2019 local elections to improve the quality and veracity of reporting ahead of and during the election cycle. Journalists in Ecuador were able to counter false narratives pushed by opposers to democratic-minded government processes.
While eradicating disinformation and misinformation completely may seem like an unattainable goal, taking steps to empower the populous to discredit such content and inducing greater international pressure on governments that are culprits of such tactics is feasible. Democracy is only as effective as an individual’s right to expression and assembly, both of which are increasingly under threat in 2020.