Authoritarian Tech

WhatsApp, TikTok and the question of the chicken and the egg

You’ve probably heard of rural India’s WhatsApp problem: hate speech, forwarded rumors, and sometimes incited lynch mobs. Both the press and the Indian government have blamed the platform for this, and Coda has tracked some of India’s attempts to legislate the problem away.

But others have suggested these weren’t really WhatsApp problems — they were problems associated with social and religious issues in India that manifested on WhatsApp. “Technology is what we make of it,” wrote Indian economist Mihir Sharma. “If we in India choose to use convenient messaging to form lynch mobs, that tells us more about India than it does about WhatsApp.”

A big Wired story this week seems to vindicate this approach — that WhatsApp was the facilitator, not the cause. India’s latest scapegoat is the Chinese video app TikTok, which has been hosting caste-based hate videos. “TikTok is fueling India’s deadly hate speech epidemic,” reads the article headline. The actual body of the article is more equivocal, talking about centuries old and entrenched caste issues as “massive problems [TikTok] faces in the country,” thereby granting that TikTok did not exactly create India’s caste system.

Most technology scholars I’ve talked to fall pretty squarely on the entrenched-problem side of things: That is, they think hate and violence issues that manifest online ultimately reflect real-world issues. To be fair, it’s hard to find people who disagree with that statement.

But for journalists, platform-based analysis is low-hanging fruit: You find a few instances of hate speech that weren’t taken down, interview a gullible user or two, quote a few concerned experts, and you have an exposé of a platform unable to contain the spread of digital violence. It’s not wrong to criticize these platforms, of course, but we see these kinds of articles over and over. This summer, we have seen this done for YouTube in Brazil and YouTube in the US, and one publication did a deep dive essentially listing YouTube channels it thinks should have been deleted but weren’t. (They were probably right — but you could write these pieces regularly.) These articles all point to the same conclusion: A platform is censoring things, but it should be censoring more things.

Again, it may well be true that the platforms aren’t censoring enough, and criticism is healthy. But the Wired story I mention here quotes a government official who said TikTok is “degrading culture.” Does anyone consider such a statement to be remotely true?

OTHER NEWS

  • This interview with a data scientist offers one of the best explanations I’ve seen of the current era of Artificial Intelligence. It connects the exaggerated hype around AI to the shady practices of those who use it. And it offers an amazingly intuitive and morally clear explanation of what exactly it means for AI to be “racist.” Highly recommended. (Logic Magazine)
  • We’ve written before about the threat posed by “cyber sovereignty” to the free internet. Some have even warned of a “splinternet,” where the web bifurcates into a restricted authoritarian network and a “free” internet. Now, a new Foreign Affairs op-ed argues that the West should welcome and even accelerate this split. That is, authoritarian countries should be kicked off the free web. It’s a strange argument, but worth reading. (Foreign Affairs)
  • Speaking of cyber sovereignty, Russia’s attempts to create a sovereign internet could make things harder for its infamously brazen hackers. (The Register)
  • Arzu Geybullayeva, a previous Coda contributor, reports on how the Turkish government is abusing Twitter’s own rules to get its enemies banned (Global Voices). That reminds us of a similar phenomenon Umer Ali reported for us from Pakistan (Coda Story).
  • Is tech addictive? I think so, but Vox’s Ezra Klein debates an author who thinks that’s not a useful way to talk about it. Though his ideas and books seem interesting, his dismissal of tech addiction strikes me as unpersuasive. (Vox)
  • A ranking of the world’s most-surveilled cities. The top ones are in China. It’s worth taking a look just to get a sense of the numbers of cameras — they are very large. (Comparitech)
  • Once again, a massive database of private information is found to be badly secured. (The Guardian)
Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard wrote his first article in Coda while a media studies student at Swarthmore College. After graduating, he worked in production roles for various public radio programs in the U.S. Now, he is excited to be back at Coda to help run its project on authoritarian technology. Eduard recently tried to boycott the internet, but this turned out to be impossible.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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