Nigeria’s Twitter Ban Is Part of a Larger Attack on Civil Society

Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

While the Twitter ban surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government

Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly, 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

LAGOS, Nigeria, Jun 9 2021 (IPS) – Four years ago, Omoregie* and his friends were arrested without cause and taken into custody. When they got to the station, Omoregie watched as the police began to beat his friends. Afraid, he began to discreetly tweet about the attacks as they took place.


I and many other Twitter users could read his fears while he called for help through his tweets. Taking action as a lawyer, I was able to secure his release within a few hours with the help of other activists through the police unit responsible for citizen complaints.

I had been thinking of Omoregie this week when the government of Nigeria banned the use of Twitter in the country, making use of it a criminal offense. The ban followed the social media platform’s deletion of a tweet from President Muhammad Buhari in which he threatened violence against people in a region in the country’s South East where attacks had been made on public infrastructure.

While the banning of Twitter surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government. Twitter has been a major source of activism and news in Nigeria

While the banning of Twitter surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government. Twitter has been a major source of activism and news in Nigeria.

Nigerians spend almost four hours on social media daily and Twitter is the second largest social media platform after Facebook. Most public debates begin on Twitter and the platform often sets the tone for national news carried on traditional media. It has become the platform to hold government, institutions and powerful individuals accountable.

It has also long been a place for activism and to organize protests, including last year’s EndSARS protests, which led to the eradication of the Special Anti Robbery Squad. Ninety-nine people were killed during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria and Twitter helped to expose these abuses. This was most evident during an attack by police and the military on protesters at Lekki Bridge in Lagos.

Documentation of the attack, including a livestream by media personality DJ Switch forced senior military officers to intervene and later acknowledge the attack took place. Since livestreaming the attack, D.J Switch has been forced to seek asylum in Canada as a result of threats to her life.

This efficacy for activism has drawn government’s attention.

About two years ago, Nigerian government introduced a social media bill that sought to regulate the social media space and criminalize simple comments that authorities deemed ‘falsehoods’ or hate speech with fines and jail terms.

As a lawyer and an activist, I appeared before a Senate committee at the public hearing and gave statements about how we use social media to help fight human rights violations, consumer rights, and even to help find missing persons. After the public hearing, the bill was abandoned but, as we saw with last week’s Twitter ban, the Buhari administration did not give up on its ambitions to restrict social media.

They took their opportunity with last week’s shutdown. Nigeria’s judicial system has been effectively on strike for the past two months, so the Twitter ban was implemented without the oversight of the courts. In addition to banning Twitter, the government has demanded licensing of all social media platforms as well as services which stream news and entertainment via the Internet.

All of these restrictions aim to control freedom of expression; a right guaranteed under Nigeria’s Constitution as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights–both of which Nigeria has signed.

The Twitter ban also comes as the Nigerian government increases offline crackdowns on citizen action. They have repeatedly trampled on the right of citizens to assemble and protest in physical space. Activists have been shot at by police and military and many arrested while protesting peacefully. Twitter has also been used to shine a light on these crackdowns.

Since the ban against Twitter was announced, the government has wasted no time in implementing punishment for users. Immediately after the announcement, Nigeria’s Attorney General directed the arrest and prosecution of anyone using the Twitter app.

Practically, this will mean police will be empowered to search telephones for the app. Police searches of phones—and unhappiness with those searches—are not new to Nigerians and were one of the reasons for the EndSARS protests.

The draconian ban also begs the question, if Twitter, a global platform which helps to spotlight the government excesses can be shut down, what safety is there for Nigeria’s local media, journalists and citizens? With the Twitter ban Nigeria risks further sliding into dictatorship and there will be fewer ways to organize challenges to it.

Some will argue that Twitter is to blame for its banning because it overstepped in deleting a tweet from President Buhari that Twitter argues violates its policy. But even if we accept that Twitter was wrong to delete a tweet, the federal government’s reaction to ban a platform so important to public debate and activists is petty and an extreme overreach.

It is time for the world’s democracies to take concrete steps and forestall Nigeria human rights violations. Censorship of independent voices is often a means to shut down accountability and enable autocratic rule.

Allowing the Twitter ban by a few politicians without criticism would signal that the world endorses autocracy. The world’s silence and inaction are an endorsement of the Twitter ban, a shrinking of the ability of civil society to organize and a violation of the rights of 200 million Nigerians.

*Not his real name

Nelson Olanipekun is a human rights lawyer and advocate who uses technology and law to accelerate the pace of justice delivery. He is a 2021 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.

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The Future of Journalism

Civil Society, Headlines, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Andrés Cañizález is a Venezuelan journalist and Doctor of political science

Journalism is going through an era of uncertainty. It is not yet clear what its business model will be, at a time when information is a central issue

CARACAS, Apr 7 2020 (IPS) All over the world, journalism is going through an era of uncertainty. It is not yet clear what the business model for the news field will be, and this is happening precisely at a time when information is a central issue in every person’s life.


The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted both dimensions. Citizens in preventive confinement consume much more news regarding the wide implications of COVID-19; but this, in turn, happens under a modality not necessarily lucrative for the news business. The scenario of a post-pandemic global recession is stirring fears in the news business field among many countries.

Citizens in preventive confinement consume much more news regarding the wide implications of COVID-19; but this, in turn, happens under a modality not necessarily lucrative for the news business

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its report on the future and main trends expected in this field for 2020. This was released before the global spread of the coronavirus. However, the document is very relevant as it draws important lines on the future of journalism.

In this article, for reasons of space, the most significant aspects of the executive summary – just the tip of the iceberg – are included. For those interested in further detail, I recommend reading it in full here.

The study is based on surveys administered to executives in the journalistic world and leaders of digital projects in the media. A total 233 people in 32 countries were surveyed. The countries include the United States, Australia, Kenya, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, and Japan.

Nevertheless, most respondents live in Europe: United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France, Austria, Poland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. It is very important not to lose sight of this fact, as it implies the viewpoints of people living in environments with no issues regarding connectivity, Internet speed, or access to smart phones. 

Below, a closer look at some interesting aspects:

Most media executives claim they are confident about the prospects of their companies; but they are much less certain about the future of journalism. This is usually the case in surveys: When people are asked if conditions in their country will get worse, to which they usually reply affirmatively, next thing they say – conversely – they expect an improved personal situation.

Andrés Cañizález

One of the significant issues about journalism resides in local news output. There are fears of loss of credibility impacting journalists and media in general; and this may be intensified by attacks on journalism from public officials. Furthermore, it may be the case that Donald Trump is turning into a role model of this form of attack for populist leaders of any ideological persuasion in their run for power.

Closely related to the above, 85% of the respondents agreed that the media should do more to fight fake news and half-truths, that is, addressing disinformation while keeping an eye on the fact that it can be encouraged or steered straight from the hubs of political power.

The global crisis generated by the coronavirus, leaving thousands of casualties behind, with no certainty about the effectiveness of the vaccines currently under evaluation, has been a hotbed for the spread of fake news. These not only increase in contexts of political tension, but also thanks to the uncertainty prevailing at this time.

How should journalism be funded? Media owners still rely heavily on subscription fees: Half of them assure it will be the main avenue of income. About a third of respondents (35%) think that advertising and income from readers will be equally important. This is a big change in the mindset of those running the media: Only 14% venture that they will manage to operate exclusively on advertising.

Without knowing exactly the global economic impact of coronavirus, news companies must brace themselves for the direct impact of a massive recession on the pockets of their readership base, as they, faced with the dilemma of paying for news or meeting basic needs, may end up choosing the latter.

On the other hand, there is much concern among publishers and media project leaders about the growing power of digital platforms providing social media to the public (Facebook, Twitter, Google). Although this concern is widespread, there is no consensus on what kinds of response should be given to this new power that has been consolidating.

It is feared that regulations approved by the legislative or executive branches of government will end up hurting instead of helping journalism (25% to 18% of respondents), although most consider that they will not make a noticeable difference (56%).

2020 will be the year of podcasts. Over half of respondents (53%) state that initiatives in this field will be important this year. Others point to text-to-voice conversion as a way of capitalizing on the growing popularity of these formats.

We are likely to see more moves from the media this year to customize digital covers and explore other forms of automatic recommendation. Over half of respondents (52%) state that such AI-supported initiatives will be very important; but small companies fear to lag behind. This is still practically a science fiction topic for readers in Southern Hemisphere countries.

Attracting and retaining talent is a major concern for media companies, especially for IT positions. Another concern relates to the way in which companies are taking action on gender diversity. In this area, 76% believe they are taking steps in the right direction.

However, although progress is being made on gender diversity within the news media, this is not the case for other forms of diversity – geographic (55%), political (48%), and racial (33%). There is remarkably less progress regarding decisions inside of news companies and, in some cases, these issues that are just not part of their agendas.

The outlook for the future of journalism, in general, is marked by questions rather than certainty. The world as it turns in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic may further trigger some of these questions, without any likely answers in the short term.

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UN Chief Should Lead by Example on Human Rights

Civil Society, Democracy, Featured, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Louis Charbonneau is United Nations Director, Human Rights Watch

Credit: United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2020 (IPS) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has long needed to overhaul his approach to human rights. Hopefully his call to action announced in Geneva yesterday is the start of something new.


Guterres’ low-key approach to human rights may have been calculated to avoid conflicts with big powers like the United States, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. But human rights groups and former senior UN officials have criticized it for being ineffectual.

The secretary-general’s new initiative contains some excellent ideas. The link he makes between human rights and the impacts of climate change is crucial, and those who fight to protect the environment are increasingly at risk.

Forest defenders in Brazil and elsewhere are threatened, attacked, and killed by those who seek to benefit from the forests’ destruction. And Guterres is right to highlight the risks posed by new technologies, whether it involves government surveillance, artificial intelligence, or fully autonomous weapons, so-called “killer robots.”

The test for any initiative is the implementation. No one is suggesting the secretary-general do everything alone. But he needs to lead by example.

Louis Charbonneau

That means publicly calling out rights abusers and advocating for victims. Human rights violations aren’t like natural disasters.

They are frequently planned and executed by government officials or their agents – whether it’s the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in China, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, indiscriminate Russian-Syrian bombing of civilians in Idlib, or the forced separation of children from their parents at the US border.

It also means using the authority of the secretary-general’s office to launch investigations and fact-finding missions when appropriate. That includes launching an inquiry into China’s massive rights violations in Xinjiang, and pressing for an international accountability mechanism on Sri Lanka.

The secretary-general should order a follow-up inquiry into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to help determine whether Saudi Arabia’s top leadership ordered his slaying. He should also publicly release the findings of his inquiry into attacks on hospitals and other protected facilities in Syria, likely carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance.

None of this is to say Guterres should abandon “private diplomacy” with governments. But he should re-emphasize public diplomacy on human rights at the UN. Human rights advocacy shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office.

The secretary-general should be the UN’s leading voice on human rights, not only working in the background.

Secretary-General Guterres has issued a call to action on human rights. Now it’s up to him to act.

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How Nigeria’s Police used Telecom Surveillance to Lure & Arrest Journalists

Africa, Civil Society, Democracy, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Jonathan Rozen* is Senior Africa Researcher at Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

NEW YORK, Feb 19 2020 (IPS) – As reporters for Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper, Samuel Ogundipe and Azeezat Adedigba told CPJ they spoke often over the phone. They had no idea that their regular conversations about work and their personal lives were creating a record of their friendship.


On August 9, 2018, Ogundipe published an article about a communication between Nigeria’s police chief and vice president. Days later, police investigating his source issued a written summons, CPJ reported at the time.

It was not addressed to Ogundipe and made no mention of his article or the charges he would later face of theft and possession of police documents. Instead, as Ogundipe recounted, police called Adedigba for questioning in connection with a slew of serious crimes, allegations that evaporated after police used her phone to summon her friend to the station.

Ogundipe’s experience is one of at least three cases since 2017 where police from across Nigeria used phone records to lure and then arrest journalists currently facing criminal charges for their work.

In each case, police used the records to identify people with a relationship to a targeted journalist, detained those people, and then forced them to facilitate the arrest.

The police methods reinforce the value of internet-based, encrypted communications at a time when authorities have also targeted journalists’ phones and computers to reveal their sources. Those prosecuted in all three cases are free on bail.

Nigerian journalist Samuel Ogundipe (Photo: Samuel Ogundipe)

“If the police called me and said we have something to ask you, I would go there…this is just their tactics,” Ogundipe said.

Ogundipe and Adedigba told CPJ that police made no secret of the way they had established their relationship, showing them each call records they claimed to have obtained from the pair’s cellphone network providers—Nigeria-based 9mobile, a subsidiary of the UAE-based Etisalat telecom company, and South Africa-based MTN, respectively.

“[Police have] been checking who I’ve been talking to…[in order to] see who was close enough to me to be used as bait,” Ogundipe added.

CPJ’s repeated calls in late 2019 and early 2020 to Nigerian police spokesperson Frank Mba rang unanswered.

The 2003 Nigerian Communications Act mandates that network service providers assist authorities in preventing crime and protecting national security. Regulations for enforcing it grant senior police officials the power to authorize requests to obtain “call data” from telecom companies without a judicial warrant, according to CPJ’s review.

That data includes where and when regular phone calls and SMS messages took place and between which numbers, according to documents reviewed by CPJ and interviews with three individuals with knowledge of police requests for call data in Nigeria. All three requested not to be named for fear of reprisal.

Nigeria has over 184 million active mobile phone lines, with roughly two million lines added every month to service its estimated 190 million people, according to 2019 data released by the national telecom regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). SIM card ownership for these lines is tracked under a 2011 regulation, which CPJ reviewed, mandating the collection of personal information, including fingerprints and photos, that police can access without a warrant as long as a senior-ranking officer gives written approval.

Other NCC regulations, released in October 2019 and reviewed by CPJ, detail police permissions to intercept communications under certain circumstances.

At the time of publishing, Ogundipe told CPJ his next court date had yet to be scheduled, but two journalists who were taken into custody at the end of 2019–Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi–were preparing for their fifth hearing scheduled in Kwara State for March 4.

Similar to Ogundipe and Adedigba, police used call records to identify individuals that could be used to lead them to their targets, those affected told CPJ.

Nigerian journalist Gidado Yushau (Photo: Gidado Yushau)

Yushau, publisher of The News Digest website, and Olufemi, a freelance reporter, were charged in November 2019 with criminal conspiracy and criminal defamation in connection with a complaint over a May 2018 News Digest report Olufemi wrote about a factory owned by Sarah Alade, now special adviser to Nigeria’s president. Alade and other representatives of the factory did not answer calls or declined comment when CPJ reported on the case.

The first journalist police used to track down Yushau and Olufemi worked in another city for an unrelated news outlet. Wunmi Ashafa, a Lagos-based journalist with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), told CPJ that police tricked her into meeting, then made her summon her colleague, Yusuf Yunus, who in turn was used to facilitate the arrest of the Digest’s web developer, Adebowale Adekoya. The officers claimed to know they were connected from their call records.

Police were “tracking all the people that are calling me, that I’m talking to,” Yunus told CPJ in an interview. “The network provider has said that this line and this line have spoken at this particular hour,” he said police told him. Ashafa and Yunus said they were released after police detained Adekoya.

“I don’t know why they decided to do that,” Ashafa told CPJ, adding that she missed a meeting at her daughter’s school because police involved her. “They apologized to us, to myself and Yunus, that that was the only way they could get [Adekoya].”

Mistaken for the Digest’s publisher, Adekoya described being held for five nights, driven over 1,200 kilometers—including to Abuja and Kwara State—and threatened with detention if he did not lead the officers to Yushau and promise to help bring Olufemi into custody, before his release.

Nigerian journalist Alfred Olufemi. (Photo: Alfred Olufemi)

CPJ reached Peter Okasanmi, a spokesperson with the Kwara State police, by phone in January. He declined to comment on Yushau and Olufemi’s case because the trial was ongoing, but described how police regularly used telecommunications information to make arrests.

“We are able to track the culprits by use of technology through the SIM [cards] that were registered,” Okasanmi said. “Suspects, they are usually like kidnappers…we use all of those gadgets to track their locations and get them arrested…we have our own equipment we are using,” he added, without elaborating.

On November 4, CPJ contacted NCC spokesperson Henry Nkemadu by phone and upon his request sent questions regarding security agencies’ access to communications data, but received no response. Subsequent calls to Nkemadu and other NCC officials went unanswered.

Police used a similar tactic in 2017 to arrest Tega Oghenedoro, the Uyo city-based publisher of the Secret Reporters news website who writes under the pseudonym Fejiro Oliver, CPJ reported this month.

He faces cybercrime charges related to reports alleging corruption in a Lagos-based Nigerian bank and is due in court on May 28, CPJ reported.

Isaac Omomedia, an aide to the governor of Delta State, told CPJ in October 2019 that he did not know Oliver, but that they had a mutual acquaintance, Prince Kpokpogri, the publisher of Integrity Watchdog magazine.

In March 2017, Omomedia arrived at a hotel in Asaba, the Delta State capital where he lives, after receiving a call to collect a parcel from the DHL delivery company, he told CPJ.

Instead, he was met by six police officers who questioned him about Kpokpogri, someone they claimed to know he was in touch with by reviewing his call records. On their instructions, Omomedia said he invited Kpokpogri to a meeting.

Kpokpogri told CPJ that police arrested him upon arrival, drove him over 200 kilometers to Uyo, and told him, in turn, to summon Oliver. The officers had identified him because they had “bugged” both his and Oliver’s phone lines, he remembered them saying. Kpokpogri said police arrested Oliver when he arrived and drove them both over 350 kilometers to Benin City; Oliver was then flown to Lagos and Kpokpogri was released without charge.

Kenneth Ogbeifun, the Lagos-based investigating officer in Oliver’s case, requested emailed questions when contacted for comment by CPJ in January 2020. Follow-up emails and messages went unanswered.

CPJ also reached an officer who confirmed his name as Moses and that he was part of the team that arrested Oliver on behalf of Lagos police, but when asked about how Omomedia and Kpokpogri were used in the arrest, the line disconnected.

Those involved in Oliver’s arrest, and the chain leading to Yushau and Olufemi, told CPJ they relied on the Nigeria-based Globacom, also known as Glo, India-based Airtel, or MTN for their cell phone service.

“I will give you the number used to commit the crime and you have only 60 minutes to produce the details,” the Premium Times quoted Isa Pantami, Nigeria’s minister of communications and digital economy, as saying in late 2019. Operators that failed to produce data would be sanctioned, according to that report.

CPJ called the ministry of communications and digital economy in mid-January. Philomena Oshodin, a deputy director, said that she was not the relevant person to comment before the line went silent; follow up messages went unanswered.

Between November 2019 and January 2020, CPJ reached out to public relations departments at MTN, 9mobile, Airtel, and Glo, and emailed questions to representatives for each about security agencies’ access to telecom user data in Nigeria. None replied with answers by date of publication.

“You’re reporting as a journalist, which is not a crime…[but] you feel you’re being punished,” Ogundipe told CPJ, reflecting on his arrest and prosecution. “It’s very scary…it’s difficult to predict how far these guys will go.”

For information on digital safety, consult CPJ’s Digital Safety Kit.

*Jonathan Rozen is CPJ’s senior Africa researcher. Previously, he worked in South Africa, Mozambique, and Canada with the Institute for Security Studies, assessing Mozambican peace-building processes. Rozen was a U.N. correspondent for IPS News and has written for Al-Jazeera English and the International Peace Institute. He speaks English and French.

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Dangers and Questions of the Zuckerberg Era

Civil Society, Democracy, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

Opinion

Will the Internet become a tool for participation? How will this be done? These are questions that political institutions, if they really care for democracy, must address as soon as possible. The Zuckerberg era must make this choice now, in a few years time it will already be too late…

ROME, Nov 15 2019 (IPS) – This year the Worldwide Web is thirty years old. For the first time since 1435, a citizen from Brazil could exchange their views and information with another in Finland.


The Internet, the communications infrastructure for the Web is a little older. It was developed from the ARPANET, a US Defense Department project under the Advanced Research Projects Agency; the military designing it to decentralize communications in the case of a military attack.

That network enabled scientists to communicate over email in universities. Then in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland invented the Hyperlink and the Worldwide Web (the Web) rapidly moved from scientists automating information sharing between universities and research institutions to the first Websites now available to the general public.

In 2002 the first social media sites began as specialised websites. LinkedIn launched in 2003 then FaceBook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and so on…

Will the Internet become a tool for participation? How will this be done? These are questions that political institutions, if they really care for democracy, must address as soon as possible. The Zuckerberg era must make this choice now, in a few years time it will already be too late…

My generation regarded the arrival of the Web as a great prospect for democracy. We come from the Gutenberg era, an era that in 1435 changed the world. From manuscripts drafted by monks to be read by a few people in monasteries, the invention of reusable movable type meant that in just 20 years already eight million copies of printed books went all across Europe.

Among many other things it also meant the creation of information. People who heretofore had merely a scant horizon beyond their immediate surroundings, could suddenly access information about their country, and even the entire world. The first newspaper was printed in Strasbourg in 1605. From then until 1989, the world was filled with information.

Information had a very serious limit. It was a vertical structure. Just a few people sent news to a large number of recipients; there was little feedback. It wasn’t participatory, it required large startup investments, it was easily used by economic and political powers.

In the Third World, the media system was part of the State. In 1976, 88% of World news flows emanated from just three countries: the US, the UK and France. International news agencies based in these three countries included Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters and Agence France Press (AFP).

The world’s media were dependent on their news services. Some alternative news agencies, like Inter Press Services, were able to put a dent in their monopoly. But what this Western media published, by and large was a biased window on the world.

Then came the Internet, and with it, came horizontal communication. Every receiver was also a sender. For the first time since 1435, media were no longer the only window on the world. Like-minded people could take part in social, cultural and economic interactions.

This change was evident in the United Nations Woman’s World Conference in Beijing, 1995. Women created networks prior to the conference, and came with a common plan of action. Governments were not so prepared, so the Declaration of Beijing was a turning point, one which was entirely unlike the bland declarations from the previous four World Conferences.

Another good example is the campaign to eliminate anti-personnel landmines, started by the Canadian activist Jody Williams in 1992. This soon blossomed into a large coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations from more than 100 countries.

Under mounting pressure Norway decided to introduce the issue to the UN, where the US, China, and other manufacturers of landmines like the USSR, tried to block the debate, declaring that they would vote against it.

Roberto Savio

The activists did not care, and 128 countries adopted the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 with the US, China and the USSR voting against. A vast global movement was more powerful than the traditional role of the Security Council. The Internet had become the tool to create world coalitions.

Those are just two examples of how far the Internet could change the traditional system of Westphalian state sovereignty as defined at the Conference of Westphalia in 1648. The Internet spanned national frontiers to bring on a new era.

Let’s say, for the sake of symbolism, that the Internet brought us from the Gutenberg Era, to the Zuckerberg Era, to cite the inventor of Facebook and a leading instance of what went wrong with this medium.

The Internet came upon us with an unprecedented force. It took 38 years for the radio to reach 50 million people: television took 13 years; and the Web just four years. It had a billion users in 2005, two billion in 2011, and it now has three and a half billion users, three billion of those using social media.

So the two traditional pillars of power, the political system and the economic system, also had to learn how to use the Internet. The US provides a good example. All of American media (national and regional publications) involves printing 50 million copies daily.

Quality newspapers — both the conservative broadsheets like the Wall Street Journal, and progressive ones like the Washington Post or the New York Times — together print ten million copies a day. Trump has sixty three million followers on Twitter; they read Trump’s tweets but don’t buy newspapers.

The Web has had two unforeseen developments. One was the dramatic reinforcement of the consumer society. Today advertising budgets are ten times larger than budgets for education, and education only lasts a few years compared with a lifetime of advertisement.

With the development of social networks, people — now more consumers than citizens — have become objects for marketing goods and services, and recently also for political campaigns. All systems of information and communications extract our personal data, selling us on as consumers.

Now the TV can see us while we watch it. Smartphones have become microphones that listen in on our conversations. The notion of privacy is gone. If we could access our data, we would find out that we are followed every minute of the day, even into our bedrooms.

Secret algorithms form profiles of each and every one of us. Based on these profiles platforms provide us with the news, the products, and the people that these algorithms believe we will like, thus insulating us in our own bubbles.

Artificial intelligence learns from the data that it accumulates. China, with 1.35 billion people, will provide its researchers with more data than Europe and United States together. The Internet has given birth to a digital extractive economy, where the raw material is no longer minerals, but we humans.

The other development that went awry is that the digital extractive economy has created unprecedented wealth.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was recently divorced from his wife. In the settlement she received 36 billion dollars yet Bezos remains among the 10 richest people in the world. This is just one story from an increasingly sad reality of social injustice, where 80 of the world’s richest persons hold the same wealth as nearly three billion poor people.

A new sector is evolving, the “surveillance capitalism” sector, where money is made not from the production of good and services, but from data extracted from people.

This new system exploits humans to give to the owners of this technology, a concentration of wealth, knowledge and power without precedent in history. The ability to develop facial recognition and other surveillance instruments no longer lies in the realms of science fiction.

The Chinese government has already given every citizen a digital number, where all their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours converge. If a citizen goes below a level, their children will not be allowed to go to a good school, and the citizen themselves, though they may still be able to travel by train, won’t have access to planes.

These technologies will soon be in use all over the planet. London town now has 627,000 surveillance cameras, one for every fourteen citizens; in Beijing it’s one for every seven.  A study conducted by The Rand Corporation estimates that by 2050, Europe too would also have one camera for every seven citizens.

The interrelationship between democracy and the Internet is now creating a belated awareness in the political system. The European Parliament has just released a study, about the negative impact of the Internet. These impacts are:

  1.        Internet Addiction
    There is unanimity among doctors and sociologists that a new generation is coming, one which is very different from the previous one. Over 90% of those aged 15-24 uses the Internet, as against 11% for those over 55. Young people spend 21 hours per week on the PC, and 18 hours on a smart phone. This leaves little time for social and cultural interaction. 4.4% of European adolescents now show pathological Internet use “that affects their lives and health”. The American Academy of Psychology has officially included Internet Addiction as a new ailment. Magnetic resonance studies of those with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) show that they exhibit the same brain structure alterations as those who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction.
  2.        Harming cognitive development
    A particular warning is given about children under two years of age. More than 20 minutes a day of screen use reduces some of their neural development. People pushed to isolation tend to develop symptoms of distress, anger, loss of control, social withdrawal, familial conflicts, and an inability to act in real life. Internet users in tests were faster than non-users at finding data, but they were less able to retain data.
  3.        Information Overload
    The condition of having too much information hampers the ability to understand an issue, or to make effective decisions, an important issue for managers, consumers, and social media users. According to Microsoft, attention span for a title has gone from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8 seconds in 2016. The attention span for reading has gone from 12 minutes to 8 minutes. Two new terms can be used: one, the ‘popping brain’, describes a brain less adept to adapt to a slower pace of real life and then there is ‘Neuroplasticity’; i.e. the ability to alter one’s behaviour after a new experience. Frequent immersion in virtual worlds can reduce neuroplasticity and also make it more difficult to adapt to the slower pace of real life. The need to compete in speed between social media channels is well known. For example Amazon estimates that one second of performance delay would cost 1.16 billion losses per year in sales.
  4.        Harmful effects in knowledge and belief
    The fact that social media deliberately tends to gather together users with similar views, tastes and habits, is fragmenting society in a negative way for democracy, resulting in closed systems that don’t allow for alternative viewpoints. Adolescents no longer discuss significant subjects. They go to their virtual world, and if they come across somebody from another group, they tend to insult each other. The Internet is full of fake news and misleading information, and users have great difficulty distinguishing accurate from inaccurate information. Echo chambers appear to be far more pervasive, and may unite those with more extreme and partisan political and ideological positions, therefore undermining possibilities for civil discourse and tolerance, supporting radicalization.
  5.        Harming public/private boundaries.
    The Internet blurs the distinction between the private and the public. Private life becomes public. This is especially negative for teenagers who lose the concept of privacy, for example by sending private photos across the Internet. One important observation is that teenagers now get their sexual education from pornography, where women are always an object to satisfy men’s sexual phantasies. This is in turn creating a lack of respect for women, and a new generation that risk, for new reasons, returning to a patriarchal society. Group violations of teenage girls are clearly a result of this trend.
  6.        Harming social relationships
    The Internet is clearly a powerful instrument to create new communities. However, when used negatively, it can also damage communities, because of the migration to Internet of many human activities such as shopping, commerce, socialising, leisure, professional activities and personal interaction. That migration creates impoverished communication, incivility and a lack of trust and commitment.
  7.        Harming democracy
    The Internet has been a powerful tool for participation, and therefore for democracy. However the study notes with concern that a growing number of activities are also harmful to democracy. These include: a) The incivility of many online political discourses, b) Political and ideological polarisation, uniquely possible using the Internet. c) Misinformation, and, in particular, fake news, d) Voter manipulations through profiling based on harvested social media information. We all know what happened in the US elections with Cambridge Analytica data, gathered by Facebook, and how thousands of false web users and bots now heavily interfere in elections.

We should add to this study some other considerations. The first is that finance now is now also run by algorithms. The algorithms do not only decide when to sell or buy shares, but now also decide where to invest.

The Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) last month reached 14,400 billion dollars in trades, more than that traded by humans. This trend will continue with the development of artificial intelligence and soon finance will become even more dehumanized.  Even when Internet users invest themselves they too will be directed by machines and algorithms.

A second consideration is that young people read less and less. Reading a book is very different to scrolling a screen. We are experiencing a progressive reduction in levels of culture. It’s not uncommon to have university students that make grammar and spelling mistakes.

Let us remember that when the Internet was still new, its proponents told us: it is not important to know, rather it is important to know how to find. We are more and more dependent on search engines, learning less and less, and we are unable to connect that data in a personal holistic logical system.

There is clearly a need for regulation to reduce the negative aspects of the Internet and to reinforce positive values. The owners of social media platforms are now under increased scrutiny so they have taken the road of self-regulation.

Twitter, for instance, has decided that it cannot be used for political purposes. Zuckerberg is an exponent of market myths telling us that good news will automatically prevail over fake news. Except that platforms help users to read and find only what they like, to maintain our attention, providing us what is striking, unusual and provocative. This is not a free market.

The Zuckerberg era is clearly creating an entirely different generation, very different from the generations of the Gutenberg era. This raises many questions, from privacy to freedom of expression (now in private hands), from who will regulate, what to regulate and how.

A five year-old child is now very different from a Gutenberg five year-old. We are in a period of transition. The meaning of democracy is changing. International relations are moving away from the search for common values via multilateralism, to a tide of nationalist, xenophobic and selfish views of the world.

Terms like peace, cooperation, accountability, participation and transparency are becoming outdated. What is clear is that the present system is no longer sustainable. Policies disappear from debate, now referred to only as ‘politics’. Vision and paradigms are getting scarce.

Over and above all of this the threat of climate change is looming; yet last year toxic emissions from the five largest countries increased by 5%. Young people are largely absent from political institutions as is shown by the vote on Brexit where only 23% of the 18-25 age group participated.

At this very moment we have large demonstrations in thirteen countries all over the world. In those streets young people do participate, frequently demonstrating rage, frustration and violence. If we cannot bring back horizontal communication to the Internet and we do not free it from the commercial fracturing of young people, the future is hardly rosy.

Yet as the marches against Climate Change clearly demonstrate, if young people want to change the world, values and vision will return. It is evident that the Internet can be a very powerful tool. But who will redress these failings? Will the Internet become a tool for participation? How will this be done?

These are questions that political institutions, if they really care for democracy, must address as soon as possible. The Zuckerberg era must make this choice now, in a few years time it will already be too late…

Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an anti neoliberal global governance. Director for international relations of the European Center for Peace and Development.. He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.

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Watchdog Pushes U.S. to Publish ‘Duty to Warn’ Khashoggi Files

Civil Society, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Middle East & North Africa, Press Freedom, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations

Press Freedom

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) seeks disclosure of files under the U.S. intelligence community’s “duty to warn” obligations, which demand officials alert folks in imminent danger. The CPJ wants to know if they knew about an assassination plot against Jamal Khashoggi. Photo by Sam McGhee on Unsplash

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 30 2019 (IPS) A media watchdog has asked United States intelligence agencies to reveal whether they knew about an assassination plot against Jamal Khashoggi and failed to warn the Saudi journalist he was in mortal danger.

A legal brief, filed in a Washington DC district court by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), comes almost exactly one year after a Saudi hit squad butchered the renegade writer inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

CPJ’s advocacy manager Michael DeDora told IPS that his lawsuit against the U.S. government “asks a simple question: did the intelligence community know of yet fail to warn Jamal Khashoggi of threats to his life?”

Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Washington Post columnist, who was once a royal Saudi insider and had grown critical of the regime, was reportedly lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in an elaborate and brutal plot to silence him.

Khashoggi was allegedly killed, dismembered and removed from the building; his remains were never found. The CIA reportedly assessed that crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, had ordered the operation.

The CPJ seeks disclosure of files under the U.S. intelligence community’s “duty to warn” obligations, which demand officials alert folks in imminent danger. The brief, filed Thursday, follows the Trump administration’s rejection of a previous CPJ disclosure request.

“Nearly one year after Khashoggi’s murder, disclosure of these documents would provide transparency and help efforts to secure accountability,” DeDora told IPS in an email.

“But this lawsuit has broader implications: journalists around the world should have the security of knowing that the U.S. will not ignore threats to their lives.” 

Khashoggi’s assassination sparked global outrage, blighted MBS’ global standing and undercut his ambitions to improve the kingdom’s poor human rights record and diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons. 

Saudi officials, who initially said Khashoggi had left the consulate unharmed, now say he was killed in a rogue operation that did not involve the prince. A domestic Saudi trial of 11 suspects is widely viewed as a sham.

Speaking with IPS among a small group of journalists in New York this month, Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s former fiancée, explained how she was saddened by the lack of global pressure on Riyadh to come clean about the affair.

MBS has not visited Europe or the U.S. since the murder. While the prince was briefly shunned by foreign leaders, Riyadh’s long-standing diplomatic support from the U.S., Britain and others has largely resumed.

“This silence and inertia created huge disappointment on my side,” said Cengiz. 

“Countries could have demonstrated a more honourable attitude instead of remaining silent, particularly the United Nations, the European Union and the five members of the U.N. Security Council.”

Cengiz was joined at an event on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly by Agnes Callamard, the U.N. rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions who investigated the killing and concluded it was a “deliberate, premeditated execution,” and called for MBS and other officials to be probed.

Callamard, a French academic, said she knew that achieving justice for Khashoggi’s murder would be an uphill struggle, given Riyadh’s deep pockets, clout in the world energy markets and powerful friends in Washington, London and elsewhere.

“This single year [since Khashoggi’s death] is just the first phase in our journey for accountability and justice. And that means that it will demand and deserve patience, resilience, and time,” said Callamard.

“Early on, I could see that justice for Jamal Khashoggi would have to be found beyond the usual path and beyond our usual understanding of accountability.”

Callamard urged the CIA to publish its files, while also calling for an FBI investigation and a public inquest in Turkey. Meanwhile, a draft U.S. law on human rights and accountability, if enacted, would unmask and sanction the culprits and send “ripple effects” towards accountability around the world.

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