Being kicked off social media for breaking their rules is no different than being sent to a prison camp for retweeting criticism of a dictator

from the Push-Back Don’t Emulate department

It’s frustrating how often people insist that losing this or that social media account is “censorship” and an “assault on freedom of expression.” Not only is that not the case, it mocks those who face real censorship and real attacks on free speech. The Washington Post recently ran an amazing article about people being jailed or sent to re-education camps simply for reposting something on social media. It’s titled “You clicked once. Then came the dark prisons.”

The authoritarian rulers were not idle. They planned to take back the public square and now they are doing it. According to Freedom on the Net 2022, published by Freedom House, authorities in 40 countries blocked social, political or religious content online between June 2021 and May 2022, an all-time high. Social media has made people feel like they can speak openly, but technological tools also allow autocrats to target individuals. Social media users leave traces: words, places, contacts, network connections. Protesters are betrayed by the phones in their pockets. Regimes criminalized freedom of speech and expression on social media by “insulting the President” (Belarus), “inciting quarrels and provoking trouble” (China), “discrediting the military” (Russia) or “public disorder” (Cuba ) prohibited.

The case of Mrs. Perednya is frightening. She was an honors student at Belarusian Mogilev State University. In a chat on Telegram three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she repeated another person’s harsh criticism of Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko, called for street protests and said the Belarusian army should not interfere in the conflict.

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She was arrested the next day as she got off a bus to attend class. Judges have twice upheld her 6½-year sentence for “damaging the national interests of Belarus” and “insulting the President”.

This is appalling freedom of speech. This is censorship. Losing your account for harassing someone is not.

There are a number of stories in the play, each more harrowing than the next.

After a wave of protests against the Covid-19 restrictions in late November, Doa, a 28-year-old technician in Beijing, told The Post that she and a friend were briefly at a late-night demonstration and stayed away from the police and people with whom they were filmed their phones. “I previously worked in the social media industry. … I know how these things can be used by the police,” she said. “They found me anyway. I still wonder how that’s possible.” She added, “I can only imagine they knew the location of my phone.” Two days later, police called her mother and claimed Doa was involved in “illegal riots ‘ and was soon arrested. “I don’t know why they did it that way. I think it creates fear,” Doa said. A few hours later, the police called her directly and she was summoned to a police station in northern Beijing, where her phone was confiscated and she was subjected to a series of interrogations lasting about nine hours. The Chinese Human Rights Defenders group estimates that more than 100 people were arrested over the November protests.

The play calls on democratic nations to do something about it.

But as authoritarian regimes evolve and adapt to such measures, protesters will need new methods and tools to keep their causes alive — before the prison door slams shut. It’s a job not just for democratic governments, but for citizens, universities, NGOs, civic groups, and especially tech companies, to figure out how they can help in places like Belarus and Hong Kong, where a powerful state has dumped hundreds of people at protesters without a second thought jail, or finding new ways to keep protest alive in surveillance-heavy dystopias like China.

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Free nations should also use whatever diplomatic leverage they have. When the United States and other democracies have contact with these regimes, they should raise the cases of political prisoners who make autocrats squirm by giving them lists and names — and imposing penalties. The Global Magnitsky Act provides a mechanism for identifying perpetrators that goes beyond sweeping sanctions on countries, targeting visa bans and asset freezes on individuals who control the systems that seize so many innocent prisoners. Dictators should hear loud and clear that brutal behavior will not be condoned or ignored.

Despite what the article omits, it seems that the political class in many of these “free nations” looks on with envy rather than doing any of it. We have pointed out how various nations, such as the UK with its Online Safety Act and the US with a plethora of bills, are actually taking sides directly from these authoritarian regimes, claiming that there may be new laws that require censorship of the Name “public health” or “child protection”. From pretty much all political parties we see a willingness to use the power of regulation to take away citizens’ freedom to use the internet.

The many, many stories in the WaPo feature are worth pondering, but to claim that the US government or other governments in so-called “free” nations are not moving in the same direction is naïve. We keep hearing about the need to “verify” everyone online, or end anonymity. But that’s exactly what these authoritarian countries are doing to track down and identify those who say what they don’t like.

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And then we see Britain trying to require sites to remove “legal but harmful” content, or US Senators proposing bills that would make social media companies liable for anything the government considers ” medical misinformation,” and you understand how we are setting up the identical infrastructure that will enable a future leader to treat the citizens of these supposedly “free” nations exactly as is done in the places cited in the WaPo article become.

If anything, reading this article should make it clear that these supposedly free nations should take action against these kinds of laws, and highlight how similar laws are abused to silence dissent. Fight for those imprisoned in other countries, but don’t give these dictators and authoritarians the ammunition to refer directly to our own laws and allow them to claim that they are doing exactly what we are doing.

Filed under: authoritarian, censorship, dictators, free speech, free speech, internet