Read between the digital lines

On this year’s World Press Freedom Day – which falls today – it is clear that our current relationship with information has undergone a sea change from the standards of only a few years ago. a generation. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2020 the volume of content on the internet was 40 times greater than the number of stars in the observable universe. This number has since multiplied. In a rapidly changing and growing digital landscape, the world now easily communicates across geographical borders; at the same time, it does so in an increasingly publicized way.

This is particularly the case with social media where information is powerfully manipulated by targeted technological interventions, including algorithms and artificial intelligence. Today, it is undeniable that the technological developments of this mediated information have largely contributed to the proliferation of online disinformation. This ultimately has the effect of alienating public trust from mainstream media. This scenario also has a direct impact on the status of freedom of expression around the world, in which the digital realm makes possible both new opportunities and new threats to freedom of expression. For example, social media can strengthen free speech in countries where free speech is targeted by the state. A current and striking example is the encrypted Telegram application, which has become the last resort for Russian journalists to reach the public, as they have lost the ability to report freely in their country on the war in Ukraine. In Southeast Asia, the market-driven nature of online media has led to the rise of social media influencers or citizen journalists, some now acting as free speech advocates without affiliation to traditional media outlets.

Digital technology has indeed enabled new forms of free communication that rely on encrypted content, coded language and memes that indirectly express ideas that would normally be prohibited under authoritarian regimes. This digital ecology is shaping new types of popular resistance that can mobilize diverse members of civil society in their quest for freedom of expression. In 2013, a Sina Weibo Media Report reported that Chinese Internet users were becoming more receptive to the notion of open and transparent information as a “public good” thanks to the availability of digital platforms. This trend, however, was quickly suppressed by the blocking of specific sites and the government’s use of advanced surveillance mechanisms. Similarly, in many countries around the world, governments and technology companies are not fully transparent about the restrictions they place on civilians’ easy access to information. In undemocratic countries around the world, digital restrictions and online surveillance continue to hamper journalists, activists and those seen as disruptors of social stability. Such restrictions on freedom of expression can be achieved at different levels, such as the network level through the blocking of specific sites or content, and at the level of private citizens through account monitoring, covert data collection and promoting self-censorship. .

A recent case of government crackdown on the free flow of information took place following the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, where an open digital resistance confronted the crisis in its early stages. Activists, journalists, artists and other opposition members have been identified online for persecution by the de facto authority. Subsequently, Facebook banned Myanmar’s de facto authority from using the platform and removed content posted by the Tatmadaw. But a year later, the effects of Facebook’s restrictions are barely visible. On the first anniversary of the military coup just months ago, activists called for a “silent revolution” via social media platforms. Although widely used in these circles as their sole means of communication and information, social media also paradoxically endangers the possibility of free expression in Myanmar, as it has become linked to a psychology of fear and self-censorship triggered by pervasive surveillance. Globally, in order to prevent the rise of restrictions and over-surveillance, policymakers and private tech companies are working to protect users’ right to free speech. Transparency reports have been published by private entities to share information about content removal requests made by governments or other companies. Calls from activists for reform of surveillance laws may be encouraging, but progress is slow. Simultaneously, as new restrictions emerge, new civil society movements are finding ways around them through social media. This has benefited both populists and activists.

Seeking information now accounts for half of all online activity among users worldwide. As the world increasingly depends on sophisticated digital tools to access information, users’ understanding of the digital realm will have great social implications. While laws and regulations are necessary to protect freedom of expression and free access to information, greater public awareness of these issues is essential if we are to safeguard a truly autonomous and free media industry.

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