Mohamed Suliman, a senior disinformation researcher at Northeastern University's Civic AI lab (Boston), explores the global rise of government-controlled social media...
In February 2022, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a report, accusing Facebook of inciting ethnic violence and disseminating misinformation in Ethiopia. A senior government official condemned the tech giant, accusing it of standing idle as the nation descended into chaos. Yet, as previously announced, the Ethiopian government refused to sit by idly and pledged to construct its own social media platform to control the narrative. In August 2021, the Ethiopian government unveiled plans to launch its own social media platform to shape the narrative. Shumate Gizaw, the director-general of the Ethiopian government’s Information Network Security Agency, accused Facebook of censoring users who were, in his words, “disseminating the true reality about Ethiopia.” However, as of early 2022, details regarding the management and functionality of this proposed platform remained undisclosed. As of early 2022, no details have been shared regarding how this platform will function and who will manage it.
Ethiopia is not alone in its drive to control its people’s social media platforms. Governments across the globe are engaging in similar policies. This trend is worrying as such government-run platforms could potentially become propaganda tools to silence dissent. Users of these platforms may also be exposed to continuous surveillance, and their data could be readily accessed and exploited for malicious purposes.
In Uzbekistan, about half of the country’s population of ~35 million people have access to the internet but only via a telecom company owned by the state. But controlling the means apparently isn’t enough; the government wants to control what people do once they get online, too. To this end, Uzbek authorities have launched a remarkable 38 social networking sites, albeit with a largely unimpressive track record of success. In June 2016, the government rolled out photo and video-sharing/discussion platform Davra.uz, which gained about 6,000 users within its first week. A predecessor, Muloqot.uz — which, according to some reports, had 170,000 users — was shut down in 2018. Researchers argue these government efforts are aimed at providing alternatives that may eventually drive citizens away from American competitors. Despite these attempts, American platforms remain more popular among the Uzbek population.
In the notoriously restrictive North Korea, the government has blocked all major social media platforms, instead creating its own limited version of the internet, which is only accessible to a select few, described by Vox as “by a handful of computer labs at major North Korean government offices, universities, and a small number of cybercafes in major cities.” In this secretive environment, the government launched its own Facebook-like social media platform. According to The Washington Post, the platform has no name and is mainly used to post birthday messages among students and professors. But there are always exceptions to the rules: Some government officials started to use Twitter to spread their message to the outside world.
Even Western democracies are proving not to be immune. In September 2020, Facebook threatened to block Australian users from sharing news if the government went ahead with a proposed law that required tech companies to pay for news content. In response, a leading think tank proposed a public-funded social media platform run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In February 2021, the government passed a law requiring Facebook and Google to pay local publishers.
The U.S. too, has dabbled in the trend. In 2010, the United States Agency for International Development covertly built ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like social media platform for Cubans. Reportedly run by a front company, MovilChat, the platform started with benign content like sports and weather updates, with a plan to introduce political content later. As expected from such a secretive project with no public oversight, there have been documented cases where the platform was utilized to gather data from users without their knowledge. The platform shut down in 2012 due to a lack of funding. Nevertheless, the project was applauded in April 2014 by some lawmakers, such as Sen. Bob Mendez, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee.
Unsurprisingly, authoritarian regimes like Iran are also in on the trend, aiming to reframe internet access and usage in a way that aligns with the values of the regime. The first phase of this massive project, the National Information Network (NIN), was launched in August 2016. While the project purportedly aims to include search engines and social media, details remain to be unveiled.
The Turkish government, for its part, introduced a local rival to WhatsApp in February 2018. The platform, PttMessenger, was introduced to state institutions and some private companies during the initial rollout. Despite government reassurances that no data is stored, and that the app is more secure than WhatsApp, digital rights groups criticized the application and argued that the Turkish government cannot be trusted to serve as an intermediary for communications between the citizens.
One looming question is how these government-run platforms will coexist with international ones. In the past, several governments have blocked access to popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter either temporarily or permanently during times of political tension, hinting at how they might act toward tech competitors going forward.
Several grave concerns arise with the operation of these government-controlled platforms. One paramount issue is user privacy. It’s doubtful that citizens would trust their governments to safeguard their data and daily communications. Without public oversight, we risk creating a tool that propels us towards an Orwellian society where constant surveillance is the norm.
Content moderation and policies also pose a significant concern. Most likely, any content that criticizes or attacks government policies would be subject to censorship, jeopardizing freedom of expression. Even more concerning, these platforms could be used by governments to disseminate disinformation about their dissenters.
As this trend continues to unfold, it bears noting that state-controlled social media platforms won’t be carbon copies of one another; each will be tailor-made to advance its government’s specific agenda.
Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at the Northeastern University civic AI lab. He also holds a degree in Engineering from the University of Khartoum
Suggested citation: Mohamed Suliman, State-Controlled Social Media Platforms Raise Global Alarms over Privacy and Free Speech, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 23, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/05/state-controlled-social-media/.
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