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Human rights in the age of disinformation Implementing the Magnitsky Act is a big win for Global Britain. But what does it mean to be a democratic citizen online?

Sergei Magnitsky's grave in Moscow. He uncovered a massive tax fraud by government officials and was beaten to death in prison. Credit: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty

Sergei Magnitsky's grave in Moscow. He uncovered a massive tax fraud by government officials and was beaten to death in prison. Credit: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty


July 8, 2020   6 mins

Nearly a decade ago I interviewed an obscure backbencher with a radical idea: to make investment in the UK dependent on someone’s human rights record. So if you were a murderous kleptocrat you couldn’t, as is the fashion, ferret the money away in a townhouse in Belgravia or at Coutts. The original case that had inspired him was the story of the Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a massive tax fraud by government officials working with gangsters in Russia, was arrested, beaten and denied medical treatment until he died in a Moscow prison, while the ill-gotten gains were invested across the world.

The US Congress passed an Act in 2012 that legislated for asset freezes and travel bans abroad but at the time our government was having none of it and blocked the idea: we cared only about raking in cash, morals be damned. Now that MP, Dominic Raab, is Foreign Secretary and his old initiative is being implemented: sanctions have been imposed against individuals in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea. As the Government scrambles around to define ‘Global Britain’, could “defender of human rights” be part of the narrative?

In a sense this is a return to an older British image. During the Cold War the UK combined economic, cultural and political achievements to forge a greater narrative about our superior rights and freedoms: Parliamentary debates, Amnesty International, the BBC, the Beatles and the City of London were all part of one great story of ‘freedom’, in contrast to the dour state-officiated five-year plans, politburo diktat, censorship and food shortages of the USSR. In the following decades the talk of political freedoms were gradually relegated to the little leagues of foreign policy, and economic links became pre-eminent as the UK, or a few postcodes in London at least, became the capital of globalisation. Officials would sometimes mumble something about how economic integration would lead to authoritarian regimes becoming ‘more like us’ and adopting political freedoms, but if anyone ever really thought that true it now seems laughable.

Quite the opposite. When London gleefully took the money of kleptocrats and human rights abusers the cynical spin masters of the Kremlin and beyond could chortle and point. Instead of becoming ‘like us’ it showed that all that time we were just the same as them.

If, and it’s a big if, the Magnitsky Act is implemented effectively it could signal a revival of standing up for political freedoms (or at least a little more than Brussels, which could be a motivation in and of itself). But what does it mean to speak up for human rights today? We live in a world where much of the Cold War language of ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ has been hacked, twisted and corrupted. Far-right extremists in Europe, for example, now argue they want to get rid of all Muslims from the continent to defend our ‘liberal’ traditions and women’s rights.

Or take my specialist subject: media and propaganda. It used to be easy to define a democratic information environment as opposed to a dictatorship’s: we had freedom of speech as opposed to censorship; pluralism as opposed the state’s single voice. These days it’s much harder to tell the difference. From Mexico to Manila, Moscow to DC politicians have learnt to flood the zone with so much information and disinformation people become confused, despair of telling fact from fiction.

In very different political systems cyber militias and troll farms are used to drown out dissenting voices, accusing them of being ‘fake news’ or ‘enemies of the people’, a sort of censorship through noise. And when critical journalists or opposition politicians complain of coming under attack from these online mobs, the reply from the government is cynical but crafty: ‘These online accounts are just exercising their freedom of speech! Isn’t that what democracy is all about? It’s now you, the so-called democrats, who want censorship!” And in a sense they’re right. There’s nothing in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights about ‘disinformation’ being illegal; it states only that people should have the right to give and receive information.

The first regulatory proposals that democracies have come up with to deal with the deluge of disinformation is to try to pass laws to suppress what the UK Online Harms White Paper calls ‘legal but harmful speech’, a new category that includes ‘disinformation’. These proposals have appalled human rights groups: creating new, vague, and often subjective types of speech to control is exactly the sort of thing authoritarian regimes do. This is a solution that delights the Putins and Xis of this world, who are already conjuring up ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ laws that allow them to arrest anyone they care to. In trying to save democracy from disinformation, we risk boosting authoritarians.

For the past two years I’ve been part of a transatlantic group of policymakers, academics and tech types that’s been trying to find a way of imagining what an internet in line with human rights could look like — and which different democracies could agree on. Do you really have to sacrifice freedoms to save democracy? What does freedom of speech mean in an age of bots, trolls and cyborgs?

At the start it looked like we could never find common ground: American free speech fundamentalists argued that any control on content was authoritarian; people who’ve experienced how actual authoritarians twist freedom of speech to crush any critical voices despaired. But after much debate a consensus began to emerge. We began to think about ‘disinformation’ not just as a type of content, but as a type of deceptive behaviour.

The problem with the cyber militias and troll farms is not so much individual pieces of content they post, but the way they distribute them en masse in a way that looks organic, as if it’s real citizens exercising their freedom of speech, when in reality these are hidden, coordinated campaigns from a single source.

This sort of mass, inauthentic campaign actually takes away people’s right to receive information about its origins, to understand how the information environment around them is shaped. I’m not talking about individual anonymity — that’s an important right — but the warping of reality where what seems to be one person saying something online is actually part of a network of accounts all saying the same thing, at the same time, according to lines passed down from a hidden manipulator.

This sort of ‘viral deception’, as we began to call it, is the sort of behaviour that can be regulated against. And most importantly this is in the spirit of Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights: it’s a demand for more information, not less. As David Kaye, the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and one of the members of our group said:

“Another way to conceptualise the impact and purpose of viral deception is as a tool to interfere with the individual’s right to information. Coordinated amplification
interferes with the individual’s right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Conceived this way, it seems to me that solutions could be aimed at enhancing individual access to information rather than merely protecting against public harm.”

Ultimately, what does it mean to be a democratic citizen online? It should mean understanding who is targeting content at you and how. Which of your own data is being used to target you and why. Whether the content you see from, shall we say, a political campaign is the same content your neighbour sees. It should mean public oversight of algorithms so we understand why we see one thing online and not another.

We live in a strange paradox: on the one hand there’s more content than ever before and less censorship, even in authoritarian countries. But there is a new form of censorship: we have no idea how the information environment around us is shaped. We are like Caliban on Prospero’s island, surrounded by digital weather and weird sounds that drive us into social media swells of panics and hysterias, but which we cannot make sense of because it is all dictated from behind a cloak. This cloak needs to be ripped away. And this, of course, is the sort of transparency dictatorships don’t want: the rulers of Beijing and Moscow don’t want their citizens to know how they monitor and manipulate their data; how they rig algorithms so people see what they want them to see.

The UK could take the lead in formulating what a democratic information environment is in the 21st century. We have already committed to making media freedom one of the aims of our foreign policy (with Amal Clooney fronting our campaign no less), but to be relevant in the media debate now you need to coordinate democracies on how to define freedom in the new digital space too.

There’s a security aspect to this also. Until we define the democratic standards of online behaviour, we can’t nail what’s so wrong with hostile states, such as Russia but also increasingly China and Iran, using covert, digital campaigns to influence our politics and interests — whether that’s to attack the Magnitsky Act, subvert the credibility of our elections or destabilise our friends in Ukraine. If we had even the simplest rules around transparency of coordinated campaigns, we would have a legal and philosophical platform to argue that Russia’s use of non-transparent bots and trolls and Facebook groups in the UK is an offence. At the moment there’s little difference in how domestic disinformation works and how foreign adversaries wage it.

But that’s always been the twist in promoting your ‘global’ image: it reverberates back home. In the Cold War the US was partly spurred on to pass civil rights legislation because its racist laws were being hammered by Soviet propaganda, undermining the US foreign policy narrative as the world’s defender of universal freedoms.

In today’s weirdly interconnected world the outer and the inner are more intertwined than ever. Dominic Raab may sit in the Foreign Office, but he’s defining the most domestic and internal of agendas.


Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
He is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University and at the LSE
peterpomeranzev

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William Gladstone
William Gladstone
3 years ago

Life is disinformation as well as information and what we need is the real raw data and education to tell them apart. Critical thinking, asking who benefits? what is your record? and who are you funded by? etc are important things to know in whether you trust a source or not.

Of course its not that simple and people get things wrong all the time but I think certainly teaching real critical thinking (as opposed to contrived nonsense like critical theory) can help improve the chances of telling fact from fiction.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago

What an evolution that would bring if critical thinking was taught in schools. It should be a basic, like reading and writing, for without evaluation of the data, it is worthless.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Crisp

The last thing the elite/establishment want is people who think critically.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Credit to Douglas Murray for this – we have algorithms built into google that deliberately skew towards a political slant.

If you search google images for “european art” – you get a host of European paintings with explicit bias towards people of colour, despite the vast catalogue of European art being nothing of the sort. A strange similar thing occurs if you type “straight couple”; you get a mix of images containing large numbers of gay couples. For “gay couple” you get what you expect, images of gay couples. I would urge anyone to take 5 minutes and test this themselves if they are in any doubt.

Intrinsically and personally i couldn’t care less – these are not things I can imagine searching for ever under normal circumstances and at a very high level see little harm in greater cross-representation of minorities in general.

What does bother me though is that a decision has been made to implement political bias into something that should be as straightforward as a search engine. It’s dangerous when superficially innocuous companies are doing this surreptitiously.

What else is manipulated and how much? We talk of Russian and Chinese influence in software but we’re doing it to ourselves.

David Jones
David Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

“we have algorithms built into google that deliberately skew towards a political slant”
Not necessarily. The search is based on keywords. If you look for “European art” the top results will not be the most popular examples of European art because the words “European art” are rarely used explicitly in describing individual paintings. They are described by their artist, style or content.

The examples where you find the most use of “European art” are going to be from webpages discussing a particular theme in the history of European art in general – and they’ll be ranked by how many people link to that page (and to some extent by your own previous searches). So the top results are either surprising examples – like people of colour – or they are linked to current hot topics (especially if you are interested in politics and often search on topics related to this) – like race – but it’s not necessarily due to deliberate political bias one way or the other. It’s also been shown that Google algorithms suggest racist or antisemitic questions when you start typing.
The actual problem is in taking Google rankings too seriously – it’s a flawed system technically.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Are “we”?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master-that’s all.”

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I’ve just searched on Google Images for gay couples and got gay couples. I then replaced the word gay with straight and got …. more gay couples. So it is true. In fact it was worse than that because a good proportion were entitled “gay couples are happier than straight couples” etc. This is almost certainly bias, but the bias might also be affected by the fact that people writing about gay / straight couples are from gay friendly websites / news outlets etc. Church groups or conservative outlets are not writing articles on the subject so much and are not going to get the hits to propel them up the search list.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

That is a very good point and provides some comfort that it’s not hard coded.

That said doesn’t really explain the European art one or that if you search by any specific “race”+couple you get a similar effect (also from D. Murray). I tried to come up with a more simple rationale for it – notwithstanding that I have a decent technological understanding of the software behind it. But couldn’t explain it.

I guess “straight couple” is not a typical thing to write or say unless in the context of also talking about gay couples so it makes sense.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

The European art one could conceivably be explained by the fact that people have recently been debating whether our art tradition is exclusionary; it wouldn’t surprise me if, as a result, a lot of people have been Googling “people of colour in European art” (whether to support or to refute the ideological claim). The algorithm then associates “European art” with the more extensive search term, and throws up painting of people of colour when you search for just those two words.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

That was my first thought as well – but Mr Murray wrote in 2018 and the search brings up near identical images as described. If anything i was surprised it hadn’t changed more as the search tendencies and website content shifts.

But actually on the main point – Geoff Cox has pointed out this actually makes sense and is a non issue thankfully.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Messrs Spetzari and Cox, the observations you make are truly fascinating, but I’d hesitate to be certain that the example of gay versus straight couples is evidence of bias in the search engine. It could just be evidence that straight couples tend not to be particularly conscious that they fit into a specific category, so that the only time you are likely to read about “straight couples” is in juxtaposition with comments on “gay couples”. I remember years ago the film critic and scholar Richard Dyer mentioning that his students told him they knew that he was gay because he used the word “heterosexual” so often. (A comparable phenomenon can be noticed with other minorities; for comparison’s sake, try searching for “white men” and see how many black faces pop up!).

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

The tenor of this piece is disturbing. Its background assumption is that the officials in democratic governments are disinterested parties who are seekers of truth, which is naïve in the extreme. Pomerantsev notes that in the UK Magnitsky Act sanctions have been sanctions have been imposed against individuals in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea. The absence of the People’s Republic of China from this list is glaring. It confirms the fears that the various Magnitsky acts instituted in NATO countries, with the NATO leader the United States taking the lead, have basically been cudgels for NATO warhawks to use to attack the Russian Federation, rather than the neutral tool to punish bad actors that they are supposed to be. Sovereign states have always had the right to deny foreigners entry to their country at will, and these could be used to deny entry to people suspected responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky or any other crime. To go beyond that and try to impose financial sanctions on foreigners without any formal judicial process is highly questionable, especially when applying it to Russian officials but not Communist Chinese officials turns the whole thing into a bad joke. Canada’s Magnitsky Act was the work of Chrystia Freeland, now our deputy prime minister. When journos asked her about completely factual reports coming from Russian sources that her maternal grandfather, was a Nazi collaborator, editing a pro-Hitler Ukrainian-language newspaper first from Cracow and later from Vienna, she refused to admit the truth of the claims. Instead she disgracefully squawked about Russian disinformation and the Canadian Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, echoed her claims. In the future perhaps such embarrassing revelations about our political leaders can be nipped in the bud by our so-called democratic leaders as malicious disinformation from hostile powers. Who will protect us from those protecting us against disinformation? It’s not a rhetorical question. I really wonder what Pomerantsev thinks about it, if he has ever given it a moment’s thought.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago

In the late 90s and early 00s Labour had an ‘ethical’ foreign policy and the Neocons were ascendant in the US believing they could spread democracy around the world. That didn’t end well. Freedom in other countries whilst desirable is not something that it’s our job to impose (haven’t the lessons of the ‘Arab Spring’ and associated interventions between learned?), it’s up to the people in those countries to make their own way. The aim of our foreign policy is to further our interests, whatever celebrity ‘human rights’ lawyers say. Meanwhile a Marxist revolution is occurring in our country (and the US) where our history and culture is being trashed with the acquiescence and even support of the ruling class. Let’s sort that out first.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

“The aim of our foreign policy is to further our interests” – it’s unclear what long-term aspect of our interests is served by inviting investment from tyrants and oligarchs. Clearly, it makes us more vulnerable for such people to have a financial stake in and corresponding influence on our society.

It’s true that efforts to impose or even promote freedom abroad usually end badly, but if our interests in part involve preserving freedom and democracy here at home, it’s clearly undesirable in principle to have successful examples of nations in the world that don’t embrace these values. People gravitate toward successful models, and the cause of freedom and democracy has been drastically undermined in the last quarter century by the fact that tyrannies and autocracies have become steadily richer. Our interests are not independent of what happens elsewhere in the world.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

Magnitsky was a corrupt parasite who got just what he deserved. Russia did the world a favor. It is just a shame Browder and Jamison Firestone didn’t suffer the same fate. Why the hell would anybody claiming to care about justice back these vampires trying to suck the blood out of the ruins of the USSR and the suffering Russian people? Our oligarchs didn’t get their way in Russia and got kicked out once the Russian people realized what the game was… Oh boo hoo. Give me a break.

David Jones
David Jones
3 years ago

“We have already committed to making media freedom one of the aims of our foreign policy”

So has the EU. So what are we doing to cooperate on this and make the most of our influence?

t133yb0y
t133yb0y
3 years ago

https://www.youtube.com/wat
Not so widely publicised details of Bill Browder’s narrative.