July 8, 2020

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.