In the past decade, social media has gone from being extra entertaining to a fully integrated part of our lives. Social media is a good way to keep in touch with friends, families, and acquaintances, especially in the contemporary world. But it is not only being used by us but governments as well to keep in touch with its citizens. Governments are increasingly purchasing cutting edge technology to keep an eye on its citizens’ behavior on social media. This form of mass surveillance has made its way to a range of countries, from authoritarian powers to smaller and poorer countries. Coupled with an alarming rise in the number of countries where social media users have been arrested for their legitimate online activities, the growing employment of social media surveillance threatens to squeeze the space for civic activism on digital platforms. For e.g. in 2017, at least 7 people were arrested for posting ‘objectionable’ posts on social media against newly elected Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. As quickly as social media has insinuated into politics, the workplace, and elsewhere it continues to evolve at lightning speed making it a conundrum to guess which way it will morph next. Social media is not a utility, where people care about whether it works or not, rather people look for new hot things especially the younger generation.
Social media surveillance refers to the collection and processing of personal data pulled from digital communication platforms, often through automated technology that allows for real-time aggregation, organization, and analysis of large amounts of metadata and content. Governments have long employed people to monitor speech on social media, including by creating fraudulent accounts to connect with real-life users and gain access to networks. With the colossal amount of personal data people willingly release on social media, government agencies can easily collect and analyze populations of people as they please. Authorities in Iran have a legion of volunteers who monitor online speech. Any citizen can report for duty on the Cyber Police (FATA) website. Similarly, the ruling Communist Party in China has recruited thousands of individuals to sift through the internet and report problematic content and accounts to authorities. In India, various political parties have IT cells, although BJP has allegedly the strongest IT-cell. These groups not only monitor social media platforms but also are responsible for hate comments, cleaning some one’s image, or spread fake news. The market for social media surveillance has grown by large, giving intelligence and law enforcement agencies new tools for combing through massive amounts of information. Justifying their efforts in the name of enhancing security, limiting disinformation, and ensuring public order, governments have effectively co-opted social media platforms. While these platforms typically present themselves as social connectors and community builders, state agencies in repressive countries see them as vast storehouses of speech and personal information that can be observed, collected, and analyzed to detect and suppress dissent. Often the explanations leading to the arrests are stated that “the material was provocative and could lead to communal clash”, but it reflects the incompetency of the state to maintain harmony, and increased intolerance.China is a leader in developing, employing, and exporting social media surveillance tools. Its agencies work closely with leading companies to monitor individuals online. A complex web of regulations gives the Chinese state access to user content and metadata, allowing authorities to more easily identify and reprimand users who share sensitive content. Freedom of Net 2019: The Crisis of Social Media, examined 65 nations worldwide to find out, China topped the list of “World’s worst abuser of internet freedom” for 4 years in a row. In contrast, Iceland was “The World’s best protector of internet freedom”. India scored 55 out of 100 and was declared “partly free”. With the Internet restrictions closing in, it is a warning call to wake up to your rights.
What’s most alarming is how populist leaders and far-right groups have grown adept not only at creating viral disinformation but also at harnessing networks that disseminate it. The majority of the disinformation, wrote the authors, are from domestic sources rather than foreign interference.
Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression,as technology advances to greater heights, the protection of our citizens must be greater as well.
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