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DEMOCRACY
Social media and democracy: optimism fades as fears rise
By Rob Lever
Washington (AFP) Oct 1, 2017


Hong Kong democracy rally marks China national day
Hong Kong (AFP) Oct 1, 2017 - Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday to mark China's national day with a pro-democracy rally and voice growing fears that the city's liberties are under threat from Beijing.

The protest which was dubbed an "anti-authoritarian rally" also comes after recent arrests of prominent pro-democracy activists, including a former lawmaker, have renewed anti-China sentiment.

A number of other activists, including founding members of mass pro-democracy rallies in 2014, which blocked thoroughfares for 79 days, are also facing charges and possible jail terms.

"Authoritarian rule has already become Hong Kong's reality in Hong Kong," Benny Tai, one of the founders of the movement told protesters.

"We are having today's rally ... because we hope more Hong Kong people will see the true nature of the government," Tai, a law professor, said.

Participants in Sunday's rally singled out the city's leader Carrie Lam and justice secretary Rimsky Yuen, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping with their pictures placed on placards saying "authoritarian clown".

Others carried a black banner mimicking the Chinese national flag with five yellow stars drawn on it, with around 5,000 taking part in the rally, according to estimates by an AFP reporter at the scene.

University student Vince Ho, 21, said the authorities' hardline approach was likely to spur others into action.

"I think it would even encourage more people to come out to redress the injustice," she said.

Tens of thousands joined the Umbrella Movement which started in September, 2014 to call for fully free leadership elections in the city, but failed to convince the government to make concessions over political reform.

The face of the Umbrella Movement Joshua Wong, former lawmaker Nathan Law and fellow protest leader Alex Chow were sent to prison in August for their leading role in the initial protest that sparked the movement.

It was a blow to the pro-democracy campaign and seen as more evidence that Beijing was tightening its grip on semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

Their jailing has been criticised by international rights groups and politicians and has prompted accusations that the independence of Hong Kong's courts has been compromised under pressure from Beijing.

City leader Lam on Sunday morning called for unity in her first national day speech since she became chief executive in July.

"I have been deeply impressed by the strength bestowed upon us by our country," Lam said.

"As long as we capitalise on our strengths, stay focused, seize the opportunities before us and stand united, I am sure that Hong Kong can reach even greater heights," she said.

Just a few years ago, Facebook and Twitter were hailed as tools for democracy activists, enabling movements like the Arab Spring to flourish.

Today, the tables have turned as fears grow over how social media may have been manipulated to disrupt the US election, and over how authoritarian governments are using the networks to clamp down on dissent.

The latest revelations from Facebook and Twitter, which acknowledged that Russian-backed entities used their network to spread disinformation and sow political discord, have heightened concerns about the impact of social networks on democracy.

"Both services are ripe for abuse and manipulation by all sorts of problematic people, including hostile intelligence services," says Andrew Weisburd, a non-resident fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

The Alliance, a project created this year to counter what it claims are efforts by Russia undermine democracy and democratic institutions, includes US and European researchers worried about Moscow's efforts.

"What we have seen from the Kremlin in recent years is a direct by-product of what they have done to the Russian people in order to keep (President Vladimir) Putin and his cronies in power," Weisburd said.

Researcher Tim Chambers writes in a paper for the left-leaning New Policy Institute that the proliferation of political "bots" or automated accounts to make topics go "viral" such as those employed in 2016 are dangerous for elections and democracy

"They fake petition signatures. They skew poll results and recommendation engines," Chambers said.

"Deceptive bots create the impression that there is grassroots, positive, sustained, human support for a certain candidate, cause, policy or idea. In doing so, they pose a real danger to the political and social fabric of our country."

Oxford University researchers said in a June report that social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which were intended to be a platform for free expression, "have also become tools for social control" in many countries.

Governments employ large numbers of people "to generate content, direct opinion and engage with both foreign and domestic audiences," said the report by the university's Project on Computational Propaganda.

The researchers, who studied social media in 28 countries, concluded that "every authoritarian regime has social media campaigns targeting their own populations."

- Bots, cyber troops -

In Turkey, for example, that has led to targeting of opposition leaders' social media accounts so that others can launch a smear campaign.

In other countries, governments create "bots" which amplify some voices to create an artificial sense of popularity, the researchers said. Some regimes employ "cyber troops" or private contractors for this purpose.

Zeynep Tufekci, a North Carolina University sociologist who studies social networks and activist movements, said the platforms which helped enable the Arab Spring are now being used against dissenters.

"This is not necessarily Orwell's 1984," she writes in her 2017 book, "Twitter and Tear Gas: How Social Media Changed Protest Forever."

"Rather than a complete totalitarianism based on fear and the blocking of information, the newer methods include demonizing online media and mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the online waters with misinformation, information overload, doubt, confusion, harassment, and distraction."

- Russian ads in US -

In the United States, the disclosures by Facebook and Twitter fueled concerns that disinformation campaigns, likely from Russian entities, sought to manipulate public opinion and polarize the electorate ahead of the November election.

Twitter shared data with congressional investigators about ads from Russia Today, a television group with links to the Moscow government and which has been accused by US intelligence services of meddling in the election.

Twitter said RT spent $274,000 in 2016 on ads on its site that may have been used to try to influence the US election.

Facebook also acknowledged foreign entities linked to Russia paid to promote political messages on the leading social network, potentially violating US election laws.

The Oxford researchers said in a report Thursday that the campaign to spread "junk news" during the 2016 presidential election via Twitter appeared to target key states which could sway the Electoral College results.

The researchers said that in the days leading up to the election, "Twitter users got more misinformation, polarizing and conspiratorial content than professionally produced news."

Weisburd said the social media firms are "largely immune from responsibility" in the legal sense, but that "in the court of public opinion it is a different matter, and future US legislation seems likely if they don't address these issues in a meaningful way."

Emily Parker, a New America Foundation Future Tense fellow and author of the book, "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground," cautions against idealizing or demonizing social networks.

"Social media has always been a double-edged sword," she said.

"Citizens use it to speak truth to power, and authoritarian governments use it to spread misinformation. And yes, governments are increasing their efforts to censor the internet, but that's because they recognize that the internet poses a threat to their control."

DEMOCRACY
Marine Le Pen's top aide quits over far-right infighting on Europe
Paris (AFP) Sept 21, 2017
One of the top aides to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen quit the National Front on Thursday, laying bare a split in the party over Europe following its election defeat this year. Florian Philippot, the party's vice-president who spearheaded the drive to soften the party's image among voters, announced his departure on France 2 television after being stripped of key responsibilities by ... read more

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