Digital Directions: November 17, 2022

Insights on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.


  • Twitter layoffs extend to the platform’s global content moderation capacity and ability to protect human rights defenders.
  • Iran and some Latin American countries are the latest to utilize digital authoritarian tactics and equipment from Beijing and elsewhere, but collaborative civil society and government partnerships have improved internet freedom in some countries.
  • Countering China’s global media and propaganda apparatus will require a more networked response that goes beyond fact-checking and stronger competition from independent media.

Why Independent Media and Fact-Checking China’s Propaganda Are Not Enough // November 17

by Kevin Sheives, Deputy Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies, @KSheives

For many in the democracy community and others concerned about the “information disorder” that has upended discourse in our societies, the response often boils down to the need to tell the truth better. Naturally, this leads to calls for more support to independent media and fact-checking of false information. While these approaches are important components of a whole-of-society response, a broader set of responses is needed that addresses the full scope of the global information disorder rather than simply competing better for attention with disinformation, propaganda, and hate speech. While not the only troubling source of false or harmful content, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) expanding state-affiliated media footprint around the world could serve as a useful lens to examine the extraordinary responses that are key components of a comprehensive, networked response to disinformation.

In certain media markets, the line between independent media and state-affiliated media isn’t necessarily clear cut; the two are increasingly intertwined. In order to effectively cover China, many media outlets enter into cooperative agreements with PRC-affiliated media companies. Freedom House, in its 2022 report on this topic, found that in 12 of the 30 countries it studied, local outlets had entered into coproduction arrangements with such companies. These partnerships provided PRC technical support or resources to aid local outlets in their reporting in or on China, in exchange for a degree of PRC editorial control over the finished product. Furthermore, in 18 of those same 30 countries, local media partners amplified the narratives of China’s state-backed media giants. Additional measures by tech platforms and news outlets can help disentangle the relationship between China’s state-affiliated media entities and independent outlets. These steps could include consistent labeling of PRC (and other) state-affiliated content on social media even when that content eventually appears in independent news outlets; transparency about content-sharing and licensing arrangements for foreign news reporting and business deals between local and PRC outlets; or choosing to reject paid advertising inserts by PRC-affiliated media in other print and online publications.

China’s overt, international propaganda apparatus doesn’t operate solely in open and competitive media markets. It is increasingly bolstered by a variety of sophisticated, covert activities such as paying influencers on platforms like YouTube, amplifying official state media and PRC diplomats through fake social media accounts, and censoring foreign researchers and journalists through cyberbullying or denying safe access to China as leverage. Tracking, analyzing, and publicizing these covert campaigns can help blunt the impact of state-based propaganda and build resilience among the public to foreign influence operations. Exposing efforts by the PRC to censor journalists abroad can be a powerful signal to local audiences concerned about the openness and integrity of their information spaces, particularly as it pertains to political discourse. To address the pressure some journalists have felt from PRC embassies and entities, among other objectives, one Philippine journalist association developed a special code of ethics for reporting on China.

News organizations in democratic societies are at a disadvantage in covering China affairs. The PRC is simultaneously a global power with influence across many sectors of societies around the globe and, at the same time, resistant to traditional means of investigative journalism due its tightly-controlled information ecosystem. Most news organizations are aware of and able to report on China’s influence in their countries, but these organizations do not necessarily fully understand the source of that influence back in China. Journalists covering China’s influence need specialized training. Chinese-language training outside of the PRC and a better understanding of the dominant role of the Chinese Communist Party across the Chinese Party-state apparatus are crucial to understanding China. Close partnerships with China researchers could strengthen their reporting. Journalists should also take advantage of open source investigative courses on China, such as one offered at the Center for Advanced China Research.

The solution to information disorder must go above and beyond offering a more competitive alternative through journalism and fact-checking initiatives. If the emerging responses to China’s state media influence serve as an instructive case study, democracies’ responses to all threats to the information space must be truly comprehensive.

The Twitter Takeover’s Implications for Content Moderation and Human Rights Defenders

Half of Twitter’s global workforce—including the human rights team, regional offices, and content moderators—was fired a week after Elon Musk’s takeover, heightening global concerns about the amplification of hate speech and disinformation on the platform. The loss of language proficiency and regional knowledge will likely exacerbate the company’s inability to moderate non-English languages and further expose vulnerable human rights defenders to increased risks of online impersonation, surveillance, and censorship. Other platforms, like Meta, have instituted layoffs amidst worsening economic conditions.

Countering Russian Disinformation

The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked an escalation in Russian information activities around the globe, according to a recent OECD report. Deploying disinformation on Telegram, for example, has helped state-affiliated media amplify misleading narratives and avoid detection. According to disinformation expert Jakub Kalenský in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, democracies must ignore Russia’s recycled narratives and the “empty threats” that have paralyzed them in the past if they are to counter future authoritarian information activities.

New Counter-Disinformation Research and Best Practices

According to Forum Deputy Director Kevin Sheives quoted in Cyberscoop, effectively combatting—and ultimately preventing—malign information activities requires “a more networked and resourced counter-disinformation response” amongst diverse stakeholders across civil society, academia, media, and the policymaking community. However, as the counter-disinformation sector expands, it is necessary to ensure quality and respect for shared standards. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations recently outlined methods, techniques, and best practices for newcomers in the rapidly-evolving field. Envisioned as a starting point for assessing the investigative process, the collection of essays presents expert insights ranging from data collection approaches to team management.

Intensifying Digital Repression in Iran

Iranian authorities are suppressing anti-government protests through internet blackouts, blocks on social media, AI-powered facial recognition technologies that hinder mobilization and identify protestors, and more sophisticated instruments like SIAM, a program that allows authorities to manipulate cellular networks. The PRC enables and supports Tehran’s burgeoning digital surveillance capacities—an estimated 15 million cameras across 28 cities—and is helping  to establish Iranian smart cities that feature Beijing’s technologies. Freedom House’s Cathryn Grothe argues that countering Iran’s deepening digital authoritarianism will require a commitment from policymakers, tech companies, and activists alike.

Countering China’s Digital Investments in Latin America

The entrenchment of Chinese tech companies in Latin American markets puts Chinese firms in a position to shape tech norms and contributes to the deployment of repressive digital surveillance tools. Chinese companies like TikTok and Huawei are hiring young, local tech professionals to tailor their products to Latin American consumers. A recent policy brief by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that the European Union’s forthcoming Digital Alliance with Latin America and the Caribbean presents opportunities for the EU to reinforce shared democratic norms and bolster cooperation on digital technologies. Investments in connectivity, efforts to tackle cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and collaboration on ethical standards will, for example, help the bloc reach out to Latin American and Caribbean countries on issues of regional interest.

Authoritarian Ambitions to Control the Web

According to Freedom House’s latest Freedom on the Net report, global internet freedom declined for the twelfth consecutive year. Emerging and established autocrats are consolidating their power over the digital ecosystem by blocking foreign media and centralizing technical infrastructure. The web is splintering along national lines, in many cases into repressive spaces where state-endorsed media and state surveillance flourish unopposed. Nonetheless, twenty-six countries experienced net improvements in internet freedom over the past year due to collaborative civil society efforts, while new government initiatives, like the EU’s Digital Services Act, are pointing the way toward a more democratic approach to regulating tech.

In a new Forum Power 3.0 blog post, “Bridging the Gap Between the Digital and Human Rights Communities,” Eduardo Ferreyra of Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, a civil society organization based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, considers obstacles preventing traditional civil society organizations from addressing digital threats to democracy and opportunities to bridge the divide between digital activists and the broader human rights community.

Emerging technologies offer authoritarian states new ways of surveilling citizens. In a conversation on the Forum’s Power 3.0 podcast, Article 19’s Vidushi Marda explores how unregulated AI surveillance technologies threaten the rule of law and deepen authoritarian control.

In October, the Center for International Media Assistance released “Media Reform Amid Political Upheaval,” a multi-essay report examining the role of independent media during democratic openings. The report features five case studies examining past and current democratic openings: Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Ukraine.

Earlier this year, the Center for International Media Assistance organized a panel to debate Big Tech policy interventions that could fund independent media. Communications and Program Assistant Sasha Schroeder authored a follow-on blog post that considers existing attempts to rebalance the information ecosystem and the importance of donor support for independent media.

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