Defending Democracy in the Digital Age
An FP Analytics issue brief, supported by Google
The aftermath of the Cold War saw the unprecedented advancement of democracy worldwide, but troubling trends of democratic backsliding have shaped the past decade globally. Myanmar, Hungary, Brazil, and the Philippines are just a few examples of countries where authoritarianism has flourished at the expense of democracy. Most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented a stark reminder that democratic progress and the rules-based international order are by no means guaranteed. This reversal is being reflected in the digital realm as well. As the internet became widely accessible globally throughout the 1990s, it brought with it unprecedented opportunities for connection and interaction across borders. The advent of social media in the early 2000s further accelerated this trend. However, in recent years, authoritarian regimes have increasingly misused digital spaces to entrench their control and undermine core democratic values, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and election integrity.
Countries such as China and Russia severely restrict online expression within their borders, but even within democracies, such as India, online spaces are being regulated and shaped by anti-democratic messages, which can prove consequential beyond the digital realm. From enabling the spread of disinformation and cyberattacks, to elevating extremist and anti-democratic voices, digital spaces have become a highly contested battleground. In an increasingly fragmented digital environment, limiting the use of digital tools to promote anti-democratic messages poses a daunting challenge. As some governments censor their domestic internet and employ firewalls that limit connection to the broader global web, and democracies struggle to address malicious activity online, preserving a free and open internet is becoming increasingly difficult. At the same time, some democracies are increasingly pursuing “sovereign” digital regulations that can damage the capacity of allies to work together to leverage technology for pro-democratic outcomes. Effectively combatting the forces of surveillance, censorship, and malicious activity online is necessary to preserve global democratic norms, but it will require intentional and coordinated action to address issues in digital ecosystems across multiple dimensions.
Defending Core Democratic Principles Online
In order to maintain an open and democratic internet, core democratic principles need to be prioritized and protected online, including:
- Protecting the right to freedom of speech while combating the spread of hate speech and disinformation;
- Ensuring that freedom of the press is not infringed and that journalists are protected online; and,
- Enabling free and fair elections and protecting the democratic process from malign influence and cybersecurity threats.
Fundamental Challenges to Democratic Values in Digital Spaces
Protecting democratic principles online comes with core challenges that need to be actively addressed in order to protect online spaces. These include:
- Limiting the spread of online disinformation;
- Combatting extremist and anti-democratic voices;
- Ensuring that public online platforms are secure through robust cybersecurity;
- Ensuring that regulations promote, rather than undermine, due process, privacy, and other democratic values; and,
- Protecting a free and globally accessible internet from splintering into different factions.
The Challenge of Protecting Free Speech While Combatting Disinformation
Major tech platforms face the challenge of balancing free speech and open communication while navigating an increasingly fragmented global regulatory environment and limiting the spread of disinformation and hate speech. An increasingly complex web of international regulations has created a wide range of standards for what content is allowed online across different jurisdictions. For example, in the U.S. there are few regulations governing what content is permissible online, and what content is posted online is largely at the discretion of each platform. In contrast, as of 2022, 24 countries globally have proposed or adopted laws governing what content could be posted online, and at least 20 countries had banned platforms or forced internet outages in response to anti-government content posted online. Laws such as Turkey’s 2021 Social Media Law and China’s 2021 Data Security Law include provisions that severely restrict content allowed online, and numerous major tech platforms have been forced to stop operating altogether within countries such as Chinaand Russia.
Even within countries that have not placed outright restrictions on content posted online, the proliferation of mis- and disinformation alongside extremist and anti-democratic content is undermining free speech. For instance, widespread disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered public health responses, while mis- and disinformation about elections in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil weakened citizens’ trust in the democratic process. These issues have left online platforms struggling to provide a venue for speech that is free from government censorship, without enabling disinformation to spread throughout their networks. There have been some promising efforts to combat disinformation, including using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to identify and remove false posts and training individuals to identify them. However, to date, these efforts have been insufficient to widely prevent the spread of disinformation globally. As governments limit free speech online, and mis- and disinformation disseminators seek to take advantage of online spaces to spread false narratives, internet platforms will be responsible for combating these competing forces to preserve online environments as functioning civil public forums.
In 2021, government officials investigated, arrested, or convicted people for their social media posts in at least 55 countries.—Freedom House
Protecting Freedom of the Press in Digital Spaces Critical to Safeguarding Democracy
Global press freedom has followed downward trends in recent years, many of which have been exacerbated by restrictions and attacks on the press in digital spaces. Since 2016, at least 455 journalists have been killed for doing their jobs, through either extrajudicial killings or terrorist attacks, but impunity persists and perpetrators are often not held accountable. Beyond physical danger to reporters, increased state control and restrictions on the media have led to a global decline in press freedom. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for numerous countries to introduce laws restricting the media, such as bans in Egypt and Tanzania on publishing pandemic statistics and information. In 2021, Reporters Without Borders concluded that journalism was completely restricted or severely impeded in 73 percent of countries globally.
As press freedom is broadly suffering globally, digital platforms and media are serving as means of both providing new platforms and targeting journalists. Digital platforms have broadly expanded access to information, enabling cheaper publication of information and a wide range of new media outlets to thrive. In countries where press freedoms are severely restricted, such as Russia, online media accessed through virtual private networks (VPNs) is often the only means for citizens to access unbiased information about current events. However, digital tools are also being used to target and intimidate journalists. Women journalists are especially susceptible to harassment and violence. For example, a UNESCO report found that a prominent female journalist in the Philippines was receiving over 90 hate messages per hour on Facebook after publishing a piece that was critical of the government. Journalists have also suffered from targeted surveillance online. In 2021, at least 180 journalists in 20 countries were targeted by global governments using spyware. In some of these cases, personal information of journalists obtained through these campaigns was made public during online hate campaigns (a practice known as “doxing”).
Strengthening press freedoms while protecting journalists online poses a difficult challenge for many internet platforms. There is a need to balance freedom of speech without allowing for intimidation of the press, distinguishing between legitimate sources of information and disinformation campaigns, as well as ensuring robust cybersecurity that protects journalists’ information online. Effectively achieving these objectives necessitates a coordinated approach across online spaces, and no single internet platform can achieve them alone. While there are strong provisions in international law that would protect press freedoms online, compliance and implementation are lacking. The threats that journalists face online, and an environment of declining press freedom, call for renewed efforts by governments, international organizations, and companies alongside civil society groups to protect online press freedoms.
Since the start of 2022, over 500 journalists and media members have been jailed globally.– Reporters Without Borders
Widespread Online Election Interference is Undermining Public Faith in Democracy
Election interference has rapidly evolved in the digital era to include disinformation campaigns, blocking websites and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, restricting connectivity, and arresting individuals based on content posted online. These tools have been widely used for both domestic and foreign election interference and are leading to an overall erosion in trust in democracy. In 88 percent of the countries that have held elections since June 2018, some form of domestic online election interference has been used. Even within advanced democracies, such as the United States and United Kingdom election interference in the form of coordinated and widespread online disinformation campaigns has been prevalent. Within authoritarian regimes such as Iran and Belarus, new laws have been introduced to restrict online speech and arrest violators.
In addition to domestic election interference, foreign influence campaigns have further undermined the integrity of elections. Russia, in particular, has launched widespread global disinformation campaigns aimed at disrupting elections in the U.S. and across the EU. Cybersecurity vulnerabilities have routinely been used to spread disinformation campaigns and have been particularly exploited as tools for foreign election interference. Increasing cyber defense is a critical step in stemming election interference. However, preventing governments from using digital tools to interfere in their countries’ own elections poses a greater challenge. Preventing domestic election interference relies on more than just technical solutions and necessitates coordinated international pressure. While preventing governments from spreading false information within their borders may be exceedingly difficult in the near future, online platform providers can step in to eradicate false narratives and limit their spread digitally.
From June 2018 to May 2020, domestic actors used online tools to spread election misinformation in 32 countries.– Freedom House
As democracy faces some of its steepest challenges since the end of the Cold War, preserving democratic values online will be a crucial component of preventing continued democratic backsliding globally and preserving free and open societies. Governments, private companies, and civil society groups are becoming increasingly aware of the need to act and are taking significant steps forward. The push to increase democratic values in digital spaces is gaining momentum globally. Resolutions such as the Copenhagen Pledge for Tech Democracy outline concrete goals for action and are bringing together the key stakeholders and relevant experts to develop a more democratic online ecosystem. At the 2021 Summit for Democracy, digital governance issues were a key item on the agenda. Building on this momentum, international organizations, such as the UN and OECD, have the ability to bring together governments to create international policy frameworks to uphold and enforce democratic values in the digital ecosystem. In the face of mounting challenges to democracy globally, increasing these types of coordinated actions will be necessary to preserve democratic values and protect human rights, both online and offline.
Actionable steps to strengthen democratic values online:
- Increase coordination among governments, the private sector, civil society, and international organizations to enforce the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights online;
- Use coordinated pressure from democratic governments and private companies to prevent governments from enforcing internet shutdowns and banning online platforms;
- Enact strong data privacy and cybersecurity standards to safeguard individuals’ information, and enforce penalties for leaking personal data;
- Provide comprehensive media literacy training to empower citizens identify and report mis- and disinformation; and,
- Proactively develop rules and guidance for emerging technologies, such as AI, to ensure that they are not used to violate human rights and democratic values.
This analysis was produced by FP Analytics, the independent research division of Foreign Policy, and was supported by Google. Google did not contribute to any of the content, nor did it have any influence over any part of this analysis. The content of this report does not represent the views of the editors of Foreign Policy magazine, ForeignPolicy.com, or any other FP publication.