How can democratic governments and civil society counter the digital media tactics of autocratic regimes?

As authoritarian regimes invest heavily in manipulating and censoring digital spaces, democratic governments and civil society need to push back to preserve a just and free internet for all

More and more governments are blocking and filtering online content and are actively using digital media platforms to promote their political agendas by spreading disinformation and propaganda. How autocratic regimes are using repressive digital media tactics and what human rights organisations, civil society and democratic governments can do to counter these tactics where the main questions discussed at a conference in Copenhagen on 3 November.

The conference Digital Media Tactics of Autocracies was hosted by the Danish Foreign Policy Society, Freedom House and IMS. A wide range of participants was invited to speak: scholars, journalists and representatives from rights organisations and think tanks.

Allie Funk, Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House, presented the findings of the newest edition of their annual Freedom on the Net report. Some of the conclusions in the report were surprising, some were certainly not.

For example, it was no surprise that, for the 12th consecutive year, global internet freedom declined. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine also meant a surge in repressive digital tactics, the Myanmar military junta is continuing its crackdown on civil society and China still controls its population through extreme surveillance and once again lands in the unflattering but predictable position as the state with least internet freedom. However, this year’s Freedom on the Net report isn’t all bleak.

“The thing that did surprised us,” said Allie Funk, “is that a record number of countries experienced internet freedom improvements.”

The improvements – measured in 26 countries around the globe – are, according to Allie Funk, largely thanks to civil society organisations having been successful in driving collaborative efforts to improve legislation, develop media resilience and ensure accountability among tech companies.

“We see that many regimes are succeeding in censoring online, blocking political and social content, punishing people for exercising their right to free expression, splintering the internet into national segments and hindering content from abroad. But we also see that civil society has become more aware of and more skilled to deal with these tendencies,” Funk said.

“In the early days, there was this assumption that the internet would lead to more freedom. That the internet would be free, vibrant and pluralistic,” said Christopher Walker, Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, pointing to countries such as China and oil-rich monarchies around the Persian Gulf where internet penetration rates are high but where online freedom is strictly limited.

“Paradoxically, we see that the digital space today is a sphere that is characterised by a great deal of both control and chaos,” Walker said.

At the conference, Walker encouraged democratic governments in particular to adjust to the new environment of the internet, reminding us that it is increasingly clear, that controlling information is a huge priority for authoritarian regimes – including information on the internet. They have instrumentalised their state-owned media domestically and abroad to promote their vision and agenda in ways that Western, democratic governments will never be able to.

“When authoritarian regimes like China and Russia invest hundreds of millions of dollars into ways of controlling digital domains and information on digital platforms, why don’t democracies treat this issue with the same kind of seriousness?” he asked.

“Civil society is doing a great job, but this is a very heavy burden to battle with when you think about the resources autocratic regimes have at hand. I think that the democratic countries need to pay more attention,” he said, stressing how the most resourceful governments ought to be leading the way on this key issue.

Other suggestions for possible ways to counter the media tactics of autocracies included supporting independent journalism, providing oppositional voices with technical solutions to circumvent the tactics of authoritarian regimes, strengthening media literacy, improving legislation and supporting civil society organisations.

IMS is working to improve internet freedom and freedom of expression online in multiple ways as we assist partners around the globe with advocacy work and training on countering disinformation as well as internet blockings and censorship. IMS also facilitates dialogues between journalists on the ground and Big Tech to efficiently respond to harmful disinformation and propaganda. IMS is also part of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) that works to prevent internet censorship of authoritarian regimes and protect the rights of individuals online.