Facebook policies put human rights defenders at risk

If Priscilla Chan, an American citizen and wife of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, was passing through Cairo International Airport and was stopped by a police officer who searched her phone illegally would she file a lawsuit? Possibly.

If Priscilla and her husband were Egyptian then the answer is definitely not. It is common knowledge that in Egypt, the police are above the law. If this hypothetical situation actually came to pass, I would advise Mark Zuckerburg not to run any social media campaigns publicising what happened with his wife because he would either be arrested or forcibly disappeared. Even if our hypothetical Egyptian Mark Zuckerberg managed to flee the country after that, he wouldn’t be able to create a campaign to help those in similar dangers -Facebook only allows political campaigns for those physically inside the country. If he managed to seek help from a friend or family member inside Egypt, then they will also likely be arrested immediately; Facebook’s policy now requires someone’s full name in order to make a political campaign or advertisement. Thus, my advice to you my friend would be to internalise your anger. Facebook’s policies aid and abet tyrants. That is what Egyptians must face.

In 2017, the executive boards of Facebook, Twitter, and Google all announced that they found Russian hackers had bought ads on their platforms and used fake names a year previously to create controversial stories and spread fake news ahead of the American presidential elections of 2016. The companies handed over three thousand divisive ads to the US Congress, which they believed were bought by Russian parties in the months leading up to the elections in order to influence the outcome.

Between them, the tech companies appointed more than a thousand employees to review ads to ensure they are consistent with their terms and conditions and prevent misleading content. This was intended to deter Russia and others from using their social networks to interfere in the elections of other nations.

This led to Mark Zuckerburg’s announcement that outlined steps to help prevent network manipulation, including imposing more transparency on political and social ads that appear on Facebook. This included making advertisers provide identifying documentation for political, social and election-related ads. Likewise, he announced that the advertisements would have to bear the name of the person that funded the advertisement, and that the predominant funder of the advertisement must reside in the country itself, and the financing must be done locally.

I find that there is a significant gap between the reality of what is truly happening in the Middle East and what the West understands about it. What is happening in Egypt specifically is not comparable to anything happening in the US or Europe and thus the international policies for such companies cannot be developed based on the desires and needs of only the American public.

These laws were supposed to help American society be more transparent but instead are being used as a weapon by the Egyptian regime in order to crack down on people’s rights and freedoms and they put human rights activists in Egypt in further danger.

Revealing the full names of those creating political or human rights campaigns leads to these individuals being constantly under threat, of both their posts being taken down and a potential government crackdown on them. As a result, these laws become a means of control for the government to further silence the voices of the masses. We, as human rights defenders in Egypt, need security and privacy, as the nature of our work exposes violations within systems and governments. There are a large number of risks that we are already exposed to daily because of our activity, and it is possible to monitor us in many ways, including the digital system, in which the system can currently determine all our activity through such transparency laws.

We are not looking for equal rights or to enter elections, rather we are merely attempting to possess our own humanity, preserve our dignity, and stand up for our rights. We dedicate our lives for equality and to prevent infringements on the rights of those in our society. Now that our activism is deemed nearly impossible by your laws, Mr Zuckerburg, you truly leave us with no option as we cannot put our families and communities at risk of imprisonment due to our names and the names of those helping us being made available.

I urge you to make digital privacy and security of human rights defenders a top priority, as today these activists have become truly vulnerable to repressive tactics as the Egyptian regime uses your laws as a loophole to remove opposition.

We have already had bad experiences with your laws.

Human rights defender Sherif Alrouby has been imprisoned by the Egyptian regime for years and we attempted to campaign for his release. We tried to spread a song entitled ‘Sherif Alrouby is imprisoned oh country’ and were impeded by Facebook’s policies. We had no option but to stop our campaign in order to prevent any security issues with the individuals that funded our advertisement as their full names were displayed.

Facebook’s policies impede our work as human rights defenders. We recognize that you support freedom of speech and desire increased transparency, but you do not realise the severity of what is happening in Egypt. A prime example of the severity of the situation is the killing of activist Shady Habash inside prison for merely making a song criticising the regime’s policies during the reign of El-Sisi. Likewise, my friend Galal El Behiery spent more than six years in prison for writing the song’s words – he has been on hunger strike in prison for more than 14 days.

I urge you all to understand the differences between nations. Egypt is not a transparent nation. Rather, it is an oppressive nation that exploits transparency to kill and dispose of opposition.

The woman exposing the propaganda puppet masters

Dr Emma Briant, one of the key researchers who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018

The vortex of misinformation, conspiracy theories, hatred and lies that we know as the unacceptable face of the internet has been well documented in recent years. Less well documented are the players behind these campaigns. But a small and growing group of journalists and researchers are working on shining a light on their activities. Dr Emma Briant is one of them. The professor, who is currently an associate at the Center for Financial Reporting and Accountability, University of Cambridge, is an internationally recognised expert who has researched information warfare and propaganda for nearly two decades. Her approach is that she doesn’t just research one party in the information war. Instead Briant considers each opponent, even those in democratic states, a breadth and detail that is important. As she tells me you miss half the story if you concentrate on single examples.

“This is a world in which there is an information war going on all sides and you can’t understand it without looking at all sides. There isn’t a binary of evil and pure. In order to understand how we can move forward in more ethical ways we need to understand the challenge that we are facing in our world of other actors who are trying to mislead us,” Briant says.

“There are powerful profit-making industries that are reshaping our world. We need to better research and understand that, to not simply expose some in isolated campaigns like they are just bad apples,” she adds.

Briant is perhaps best known for her work on Cambridge Analytica. She was central in exposing the data scandal related to the firm and Facebook at the time of the USA’s 2016 election. So what drove her to this area of research?

“My PhD looked at the war on terror and how the British and Americans were coordinating and developing their propaganda apparatus and strategies in response to changing media forms and changing warfare. Now that led me to meet Cambridge Analytica or rather its predecessor, the firm SCL group. Cambridge Analytica were using the kind of propaganda that had been used in the military, but in this case in elections, in democratic countries.”

The groundwork for this research was laid much earlier, when Briant lived as a child in Saudi Arabia around the time of the Gulf War. She was shocked to find lines and lines of Western newspapers censored with black pen, to the point you couldn’t read them, and pro-US and anti-Iraq propaganda everywhere.

“I was amazed by the efforts at social control,” she said.

Then, during her first degree, she studied international relations and politics when 9/11 happened and, as she says, “the world changed”.

“I was really very concerned about what we were being fed, about the spin of the Iraq war,” says Briant.

Like many she was inspired by a teacher, in her case Caroline Page.

“[Page] wrote a book on Vietnam and propaganda, and she had interviewed people in the American government and I was amazed that a woman could just go over to America and interview people in politics and in government and get really amazing interviews with high level officials. This really inspired me.”

Briant was motivated by both Page’s example and her specific work.

“She wanted to really find out what was going on and understand the actors behind the propaganda. And that is what really fascinates me most. Who’s behind the lies and the distortions? That’s why I’ve taken the approach that I have, both in looking at power in organisations like governments and how that’s deployed, and looking at how we can govern that power in democracies better.”

Because of Briant’s all-sided approach, she says she can attract the ire of people across the spectrum. People who focus only on Russia, for instance, might dislike that Briant critiques the British government. Conversely, people who are critics of the UK and US government call into question whether she should challenge Russian or Chinese propaganda. But, as she reiterates, “it’s really important to have researchers who are willing to take on that difficult issue of not only understanding a particular actor but understanding the conflict, protecting ordinary people and enabling them to have media they can trust and information online which is not deceptive.”

Criticism of her work has at times taken on a sinister edge. Briant is, sadly, no stranger to threats, trolling and other forms of online harassment.

“It’s very difficult to even just exist online if you’re doing powerful work, without getting trolled,” Briant says.

“The type of work that I do, which isn’t just analysing public media posts and how they spread, but is also looking at specific groups’ responsibilities and basically researching with a journalistic role in my research, that kind of thing tends to attract more harassment than just looking at online observable disinformation spread. Academics doing such work require support.”

Briant cites the case of Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist at the Guardian, as an example of how online campaigns are used to silence people. Like Briant, Cadwalladr pointed the looking glass at those behind the misinformation that spread in the lead-up to the EU referendum. Cadwalladr experienced extreme online harassment, as well as a lengthy and very expensive legal battle. Taken by Arron Banks, the case had all the hallmarks of being a SLAPP, a strategic lawsuit against public participation, namely, a lawsuit that has little to no legal merit. Its purpose is instead to silence the accused through draining them of emotional, physical and financial resources.

Briant has not been the subject of a SLAPP herself but has experienced other attempts to threaten, intimidate and silence her. Meanwhile, the threat of lawfare lingers in the background and has affected her work.

“Legal harassment has a real impact on what you feel like you are able to say. At one point after the Cambridge Analytica scandal it felt like I couldn’t work on highly sensitive work with a degree of privacy without the threat of being hacked or legal threats to obtain data or efforts to silence me. You cannot develop research on powerful actors and corrupt or deceptive activities as a journalist or a researcher without knowing your work is secure,” Briant says.

The ecosystem might be changing. New legislation has been proposed that will make using SLAPPs harder in the UK, where they are most common (the US, by comparison, has laws in place to limit them). But, as Briant highlights, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

“I don’t think people really understand the silencing effect of threat, not necessarily even receiving a letter but the potential of people to open up your private world.  The exposure of journalism activities before an investigation is complete enables people to use partial information to misrepresent the activities, it can even put sources at risk,” she says.

While Briant believes these harassment campaigns can affect anyone doing the sort of work that she and Cadwalladr do, she says we can’t ignore the gender dynamic.

“Trolling and harassment affects a lot of different women and women are much more likely to experience this than men who are doing powerful work challenging people. This is just true. It’s been shown by Julie Posetti and her team, and it’s also the case if you look at other minorities or vulnerable communities.”

Of course if Briant was just a bit player people might not care as much. Instead, Briant has given testimony to the European Parliament and had her work discussed in US Congress. She’s written one book, co-authored another and has contributed to two major documentary films (one being the Oscar-shortlisted Netflix film The Great Hack). In today’s world, the attacks she has received have become part of the price people are paying for successful work. Still it’s an unacceptable price, one that we need to speak about more.

Briant is doing that, as well as more broadly carrying on with her research. She’s also writing her next two books, one of which revisits Cambridge Analytica. In Briant fashion, it places the company in a wider context.

“I’m looking at different organisations and discussing the transformation of the influence industry. This is really a very new phenomenon. Digital influence mercenaries are being deployed in our elections and are shaping our world.”

Editorial: Fact-filled future?

[vc_row full_width=”stretch_row” full_height=”yes” css=”.vc_custom_1491319101960{background-image: url(https://www.indexoncensorship.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Cover-slider.jpg?id=88947) !important;background-position: center !important;background-repeat: no-repeat !important;background-size: contain !important;}”][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”The “now” generation’s thirst for instant news is squeezing out good journalism.
We need an attitude change to secure its survival” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

THIS WORLD HAS never been in more need of good, well-researched journalism. It is tempting to write the words “old-fashioned” here too. And if by old-fashioned, what is meant is detailed, neutral, in-depth and well thought-out writing, then old-fashioned is what is called for.

Around the world there are squeezes from all directions, stifling what the public is allowed to know, and what it is allowed to say or write. From government pressure to mafia threats, from commercial agencies to reputation- damaging (ro)bots, the right to speak and report is under huge pressure.

And good journalism must be there to unmask those threats. With the rise of the words “fake news” comes a spirit that seems to think that I can apply this phrase to anything I disagree with. So the epithet “fake news” was out of its box and being used to try to disarm reporters and to undermine public belief both in research, experts, truth and often journalism.

So, this is a time for journalists and journalism to step up and do a really excellent, thorough job of discovering and publishing the news: that’s not a news broadcast or publication that is just a hodgepodge of opinions based on very little research; nor a news story that has so much spin in it it’s hard to discern any actual facts. There are those that might argue that the media has been through a pretty unimpressive period in the past 10 years, with some valiant exceptions. The line between the news and opinion pages has become increasingly hard to distinguish. So, it might be less than surprising that the public might have lost faith in news sources.

Social media has played a massive part in this. Hysterical opinion goes down a storm, instantly shared across platforms; while well-argued journalism, with more facts than screeching, tends to stay in its box, unread. And, of course, there are signs that attention spans are melting away. So not only does every item have to be now, now, now, but we can only be bothered to read the first line, or look at the picture.

Sadly, research from Stanford University shows young people are gathering their “news” from social media without bothering even to click through on a link. They also have trouble discerning the difference between a social media-placed advertising feature and a news story from a well-established news media company. So shareable opinion has become king, and news has melted away and merged into a hybrid of what it once was.

But journalists need to take back the news wherever they can, and re-establish it as a well-researched, investigated piece of information, not an outpouring of ill-informed thoughts. And the public has to take some responsibility too. We need to be capable of a bit more dissection and scepticism when we see stories, rather than swallowing them whole without thinking.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”custom” align=”right” custom_color=”#dd3333″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_custom_heading text=”Hysterical opinion goes down a
storm, instantly shared across
platforms; while well-argued
journalism, with more facts
than screeching, tends to stay in
its box, unread” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

As our seasoned journalists explain in our Decoding the News special, everyone should be aware of techniques and tools to stop them being taken in, at least most of the time. Meanwhile, journalists are doing some really strong investigations.

As we go to press the BBC was broadcasting a story about truck drivers in the supply chain for furniture company Ikea, who were being paid less than the minimum wage, and being forced to live in their vehicles. They were drivers from Romania but working in Denmark, where they should have been paid according to Danish laws. The journalist was on the road talking to lorry drivers to find the story. Stories like these are hard to dispute, because the journalist has evidence to stand up the allegations.

Over in the Maldives, journalist Zaheena Rasheed, shortlisted for an Index journalism award this year (see page 37), is reporting about what is happening in the south Asian island country, despite a climate of fear. And in other countries, remarkable reporters continue to make extraordinary efforts to get news out, despite dangerous conditions.

There are some signs that the world is starting to realise it needs good journalism. The New York Times saw a growth of 41,000 subscriptions in the week immediately after the election of President Trump. Sales of satire and news magazine Private Eye recently hit their highest level ever with 287,334 copies sold for one issue. Reports from Poland suggest a surge in sales of independent weekly Tygodnik Powszechny (see our report on page 69). This in a country that is seeing its media freedom fall down global charts. Jeremy Leslie, creative director of magazine- only shop Magculture in London, said he is seeing an upward tick in the sales of magazines “with serious intent”.

“More people are making [magazines with that type of content] and more people are buying it,” he told Index on Censorship.

Is this a sign that some members of the public are learning at last that if they want journalism that tells them something they don’t know (and isn’t made up), they just might have to pay for it? Only time will tell. Otherwise, the survival of journalism looks fraught with danger.


Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship magazine. She recently won the editor of the year (special interest) at British Society of Magazine Editors’ 2016 awards

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80566″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306422015605737″][vc_custom_heading text=”A matter of facts: fact-checking’s rise” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F0306422015605737|||”][vc_column_text]September 2015

Vicky Baker looks at the rise of fact-checking organisations being used to combat misinformation, from the UK to Argentina and South Africa.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80569″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306422016657017″][vc_custom_heading text=”Giving up on the graft and the grind” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F0306422016657017|||”][vc_column_text]June 2016

European journalist Jean-Paul Marthoz argues that journalists are failing to investigate the detailed, difficult stories, fearing for their careers.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”90839″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/030642209702600315″][vc_custom_heading text=”In quest of journalism” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F030642209702600315|||”][vc_column_text]May 1997

Jay Rosen looks at public journalism, asserting that the journalist’s duty is to serve the community and not following professional codes.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”The Big Squeeze” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fmagazine|||”][vc_column_text]The spring 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at multi-directional squeezes on freedom of speech around the world.

Also in the issue: newly translated fiction from Karim Miské, columns from Spitting Image creator Roger Law and former UK attorney general Dominic Grieve, and a special focus on Poland.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”88788″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/magazine”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fsubscribe%2F|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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