The Role of Multinational Corporations in Combating Digital Repression
Richard Crespin, Caroline Logan and Ana Blanco provide the tenth chapter to Global Policy's e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. Please find the other chapters here.
In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian citizens found their digital and social media channels inundated with messages claiming Ukraine’s “Nazi-led government” planned to invade their country and that international reports stating the opposite were a hoax. This kind of digital repression leaves Russian citizens in the dark and has severely impacted the Russian economy, as pressure from investors and consumers has led to hundreds of multinational corporations (MNCs) forfeiting their investments and leaving the country (OECD, 2022 and Scientific American, 2022).
Alongside the obvious human costs, digital repression negatively affects business, as trade and commerce suffer in the absence of access to truthful information and autocratic regimes often subvert market economies, depriving businesses and their customers of healthy competition. Digital platforms are caught in a global cat-and-mouse struggle between autocrats seeking to exploit communication technology for political gain, and citizens and corporations who need the same tools to fight such regimes (Feldstein 2021). MNCs across industries, and tech platforms in particular, play a crucial role in combating digital repression and must take action to protect business interests and the public.
Digital repression carries a high cost for MNCs including:
- Business operations: digital government censorship and information manipulation impede company operations and disrupt supply chains.
- Corporate reputation & brands: especially if they are perceived as cooperating with government censorship or surveillance.
- Financial losses: blocking a company's website or services limits its reach with customers and consequently its revenue.
- Legal compliance challenges: if a company complies with local laws that restrict online speech or inappropriately hands over user data to the government, these activities may conflict with privacy laws and human rights in other jurisdictions.
Maintaining a free and open digital economy while respecting human rights is both good morals and good business. Digital transformations have benefitted MNCs immeasurably, opening new forms of communication, commerce, and service delivery. Growth, however, comes with risk and responsibility. As the economic and political influence of MNCs grow, consumers, investors, and employees increasingly want to support companies that stand up for what is right, rejecting those that do not.
To be good digital corporate citizens, MNCs must implement policies that protect against the harms of digital repression, use their influence to push digital literacy, and eliminate investments that directly or indirectly fund digital repression.
Second, they should consider directing political contributions to democratic governments and participating in international coalitions that support digital freedoms. Through partnerships and funding, businesses can promote and support modern international and national regulatory frameworks conducive to an open, global digital space.
Third, multinationals must abide by the highest standards of data privacy and eradicate commercial spyware and targeted surveillance from their operations. Simultaneously, they should fight government restriction orders that seek to limit citizens' (and their employees’) access to accurate information.
Tech companies that own and manage the digital platforms that connect billions of people at an unprecedented speed and scale should take responsibility for ensuring proper use of their platforms. Many tech firms are reluctant to intervene when authoritarian governments use their platforms to repress the public. Although understandably wary of being accused of censorship or partisanship, these firms should take the following steps to ensure their platforms promote an open exchange of information and are not used as the weapon of choice by autocrats and their allies.
1. Allow Free Speech, but Limit Reach:
When Elon Musk took over Twitter, he fired many content moderation teams responsible for removing prohibited material from the site. Within hours, the use of derogatory racial slurs spiked 500 percent (Mcintyre 2023). However, roughly a month into Musk's tenure, he changed his tune, noting, “freedom of speech does not mean freedom of reach” (Mcintyre 2023). In other words, users are entitled to the free expression of your opinion but not to its free distribution. Big Tech platforms need to exercise judgment, especially on distribution of content (CollaborateUp 2022).
2. Transform and Invest in Content Moderation:
The sheer volume of content on social media makes it nearly impossible to establish a comprehensive editorial system. Therefore, platforms must develop more sophisticated tools that maximize synergies between AI and human intelligence (Yaraghi 2022). One tactic: prioritize topics for moderation based on the threat the information poses. Spreading misinformation that the Earth is flat, as an example, is relatively innocuous, while spreading information that undermines trust in vaccines can cost lives. Content moderators should prioritize accordingly. In addition, tech companies should invest more in local partnerships for better content moderation, as local experts better understand digital repression in the context of their country (Hook and Verdeja 2022).
3. Reform Algorithms:
Social media does more than host third party content, its algorithms actively and profitably amplify it (Mcintyre 2023). Tech companies should publish their algorithms to promote transparency and better-informed choice for users.
4. Partner with Democratic Governments:
Tech companies should continue and enhance dialogue with democratic governments to better understand and anticipate threats (CollaborateUp 2022).
5. Invest in Pre-bunking:
CollaborateUp’s report on mis- and disinformation reveals that correcting a message after it enters the digital space often backfires by unintentionally reinforcing the very message it sought to discredit (CollaborateUp 2022). Pre-bunking anticipates potential lies, tactics, or sources before they strike. Tech companies should more actively “vaccinate the public” against disinformation. For example, Facebook may not want to make a public statement on climate change, but can explain the building blocks of a conspiracy theory using a neutral example (Sander Van Der Linden 2022). Public education can help the average citizen better identify potentially false information or “shallow fakes” coming from authoritarian governments and their trolls.
6. Flag Untrustworthy Sources:
While platforms have improved their use of indicators that flag unverified or untrustworthy sources, it can sometimes backfire. Platforms must provide greater clarity and specificity on community guidelines to avoid biases in automated flagging systems as they can sometimes inadvertently censor the people trying to bring correct information to light (Cheikosman et al. 2022).
7. Arm and Empower the “Good Guys” with Widely Accessible Resources:
The Digital Ministry of Ukraine developed guidelines to enable anyone with a cell phone and/or access to the Internet to counter the massive amount of computational propaganda Russia publishes by arming the public with smart tools. In an NPR interview with Vera Bergengruen, she highlighted how the Ukrainian government repurposed Telegram bots originally used for basic customer service functions, such as registering for a driver’s license, to allow ordinary citizens to report Russian Army movements (Davies 2022). MNCs must do likewise, using their resources to counter the spread of disinformation at scale.
8. Invest in Upstream Monitoring and Partnerships:
Tech companies must continually invest in upstream preventative monitoring and not just when there is public scrutiny (Hook and Verdeja 2022). MNCs can maximize their effectiveness by sponsoring and participating in digital media literacy programs, provide journalism grants that allow media paywalls to be removed during crises, and develop grant programs for the longitudinal study of digital repression (CollaborateUp 2022; Hook and Verdeja 2022).
When it comes to combating digital repression, if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Because they have benefited so much from the growth of the digital economy, MNCs have a special responsibility to use their resources to maintain a free and open digital exchange of information. They also have a special ability to do so using their employee engagement, brands, and supply chains. Working in concert with civil society and democratic governments, MNCs can and should do more to combat digital repression. No one said it would be easy.
Richard Crespin, CEO, CollaborateUp, Caroline Logan, Manager, CollaborateUp, and Ana Blanco, Founding Principal, LinkUp Global.
Photo by cottonbro studio
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