“Tech harm is real. In Tunisia, propaganda campaigns spread on TikTok and Facebook targeted Sub-Saharan Africans. 700 videos incited violence against black people reached 22 million in less than a month.”
Emna Mizouni, Tunisian human rights activist
After a year and a half of consultation with organisations and experts around the world, the #yearofdemocracy campaign officially launched on 15 September 2023, the International Day of Democracy. Digital Action is convening the Global Coalition for Tech Justice, the global movement running the campaign. Our Director of Campaigns Alexandra Pardal reflects on how we got here and highlights from the launch.
I’ve spent the last couple of years thinking about 2024. It’s the biggest election megacycle in our lifetimes. Over 2 billion people will be going to the polls in 65+ countries. And Big Tech isn’t ready.
This was my thought after the US Capitol was stormed following a long disinformation campaign on social media. It was my thought when the Brazilian election results were discredited on social media platforms and riots broke out across the country. It was my thought when the Tunisian government doxxed peaceful activists via Facebook, and incited violence.
Democratic processes and human rights are at risk from tech harms. The spread of online disinformation, hate speech, abuse and manipulation is threatening democracy and freedoms everywhere. And Big Tech must safeguard elections, and people. That is what the Global Coalition for Tech Justice’s #yearofdemocracy campaign is all about. We want social media companies – Google, Meta, TikTok, X – to safeguard elections equitably around the world.
Launching the #yearofdemocracy campaign with a bang
We chose the International Day of Democracy to launch our #yearofdemocracy campaign which received media attention from The Guardian and La Presse. In addition to our global campaign event, we launched our online hub and 2024 elections map, while coalition members organised further activities on the day, including a roundtable discussion, protest outside the offices of TikTok and op-ed by Legal Resources Centre in South Africa; a feature on Global Witness investigations into platform failures; and a workshop on the state of Digital Democracy by Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan. The benefits of a global coalition are the ability to mobilise and connect on a global and local level.
Our global launch event brought together over 100 participants from across the world, including activists, civil society, journalists, academics, experts and concerned citizens. Watch it again. I was particularly struck by these insights and stories from our stellar line-up of speakers:
“Big Tech gives agency to anti-human rights movement by helping spread hatred, violence, misinformation on their platforms. They fail to enforce their safeguarding policies because of underinvestment in the global majority.”
Sherylle Dass, Legal Resources Centre South Africa
Why we need a Global Coalition for Tech Justice
Sherylle Dass from Legal Resources Centre started with a moving reminder to “remember people who gave their lives for us to have democracies and freedoms”, and shared why the #yearofdemocracy campaign is needed: “Big Tech gives agency to anti-human rights movement by helping spread hatred, violence, misinformation on their platforms. They fail to enforce their safeguarding policies because of underinvestment in the global majority.”
Hearing from a tech harm survivor
We heard first-hand from tech harm survivor and Tunisian artist, feminist, and queer activist Rania Amdouni who experienced digital violence through social media: “I used social media platforms to raise awareness and promote justice and human rights. However, I soon found myself the target of a well-organized campaign. I received online threats from parliamentarians, security forces, and individuals. This digital violence was directed at my reputation and activism. It had a detrimental impact on my mental health, my work, and my personal life, even resulting in imprisonment and death threats.”
“Digital violence was directed at my reputation and activism. It had a detrimental impact on my mental health, my work, and my personal life, even resulting in imprisonment and death threats.”
Rania Amdouni, Tunisian activist and tech harm survivor
Investigating digital mercenaries
Brazilian journalist Juliana Dal Piva, who has been a victim of online abuse after publishing her book “The Business of Jair: The Forbidden History of the Bolsonaro Clan”, has been investigating digital mercenaries, people who make a living by creating and spreading disinformation on social media. She witnessed how it happened in Brazil: “Our former president lied about our electoral system for two years in the run-up to the elections. It made people believe it wasn’t secure or trustworthy. Then citizens started to organize a coup d’etat on social media which took place on 8 January 2023. Social media compounded the lie.”
Big Tech should be more transparent
US Congressman Ro Khanna of California’s 17th Congressional District (in Silicon Valley) shared his support for the campaign, asking that “social media companies should disclose their algorithms so we make sure they are not purposefully putting profit over people and their welfare.”
Africa has been a victim of Big Tech
Leah Kimathi of the Council for Responsible Social Media Kenya shared how Big Tech has exploited Africa to service its platforms elsewhere: “”Whether originating internally or externally, there’s been a total lack of interest from social media companies in safeguarding African nations and people.” But “content moderators working in Kenya have litigation cases against Meta and TikTok.” Find out more about those cases on Foxglove Legal.
Big Tech is allowing organised crime to flourish on its platforms
Eduardo Carrillo of Tedic shared how a lack of content moderation that understands context, a country’s languages and slang, is letting criminals organise on platforms without censorship. “Organised crime is a huge issue in Paraguay. But it’s not moderated properly on social media. Most moderation is done in English. Big Tech is so far removed from the digital infrastructures they run.”
There is a fine line between content moderation and censorship
Journalist Neel Madhav told of a similar scenario in India: “Content moderation is not picking up malignant users as they work the system. Instead of writing ‘jihadi’ when sharing hate speech about Muslims, they write ‘J hadi. Big Tech needs better moderation that keeps up with subtleties”. He also added that “Twitter took down more than 250 accounts during the Delhi election in 2020, including many media outlets and journalists. Censorship is a big problem in India.”
Social media is sharing propaganda that incites real-world violence
Tunisian human rights activist Emna Mizouni shared the MENA perspective on tech harms: “Tech harm is real. In Tunisia, propaganda campaigns spread on TikTok and Facebook targeting Sub-Saharan Africans. 700 videos inciting violence against black people reached 22 million in less than a month.”
Meanwhile “Activists are being criminalized in the MENA region on social media. Big Tech is taking up to 3 months to respond to someone receiving death threats. We need tech platforms to be held to account.”