The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword—The Prioritization of Freedom of Expression in Combatting Social Media Weaponisation

GARIMA KARIA, THE HINDU (Opinion/Editorial)

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In the Disarmament and Security Committee (DISEC), India and its partners advocate for the protection of freedom of expression and women’s rights.

BOSTON: Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”


Setting the Tone

In discussions about curtaining the negative outcomes of social media weaponisation in DISEC earlier today, delegates identified a key paradox embedded within this issue: freedom of speech vs. privacy and protection. The delegate of Switzerland opened today’s session by exposing this dichotomy, and called upon the committee to prioritize the inherent human right to express one’s opinions freely, via social media or otherwise, when proposing and discussing possible government programs aimed at “protecting” state citizens from the harmful outcomes of militarised and weaponised social media.


The Surveillance-Liberty Impasse

Chile and its bloc were adamant about expressing and spreading their desire for “aggressive policies” in terms of securitizing social media, which, in turn, would not only debilitate state sovereignty, but also infringe upon the principle of open media. The idea of increased government monitoring and surveillance of citizens’ activity on social media with subsequent consequences poses a significant threat to the UN-sanctioned human right to freedom of expression, and is a key component of many blocs’ working papers as of early this afternoon. As proposals for heightened citizen monitoring and implementation of citizen-run surveillance programs are proliferated, they are met with passionate calls for the protection of this human right, as well as more agency for civilians. Ireland made an impassioned speech to the committee, calling for the empowerment of women and particularly women of colour in combatting social media weaponisation. The Irish delegation urged the committee to “give women a voice” in this issue, and henceforth include their perspectives and discourses in this fight.

Outside the committee room, certain blocs have been deliberating diligently to ensure that human rights are upheld within solution proposals. The ARC (Accountability, Regulation, Collaboration) bloc, spearheaded by Germany and Ireland, focuses on education as a means for female empowerment in STEM. “We want to educate women of colour in social media skills so that they can work in both global and local social media enforcement,” says the Irish delegate. “This way, we are empowering them to use their voices and report suspicious or harmful activity in their communities.” In giving women local agency, this bloc is concentrating on a bottom-up approach to empower citizens to combat social media weaponisation instead of an infringement-based government surveillance policy.

Concurrently, the DCP (definition, citizen empowerment, public-private partnerships) bloc is rallying their efforts around their motto, “monitor, not censor.” This initiative also focuses on empowering citizens in order to give them the agency to independently report negative social media activity in their communities. This bloc also endeavors to collaborate with social media enterprises to implement task forced that monitor their own social media and develop algorithms to detect terrorist recruitment methods on a local level. There is ongoing internal deliberation about these two paradoxical aims, which the bloc seeks to compromise on in the coming hours, while hopefully upholding citizens’ ability to express themselves freely. India, a member of this bloc, is steadfast in its focus on regional approaches that empower citizens instead of the government. “It’s an immediate threat,” the Indian delegate told The Hindu in an interview. “We can’t have people afraid of expressing themselves on social media. Instead, we need to empower these people to supervise their own communities and be informed citizens.”


The Definition Dilemma

Another point of contention in DISEC has been defining the parameters of weaponised social media, including determining a concrete definition of “social media” itself. In doing so, the issue of generalization and ignoring a diversity of national narratives has arisen. While certain delegates have been pushing the committee to “identify and define before we fight,” (Switzerland, in an opening speech), others, such as New Zealand, aptly remind the committee that difference countries will have different definitions of terms like “abuse” in the context of social media. “We need to develop legal parameters that do not infringe upon citizens’ rights and experiences, as well as privacy freedoms,” proclaimed New Zealand.

Along the same vein, the Mexican delegation reminded delegates to recognize the weaponisation of social media in more contexts than those concerning terrorist activity. She called upon the committee to recognize groups in Latin America, especially drug cartels, as equal threats to the safety of civilians. “We must look at all aspects of the spectrum,” when attempting to “define” a problem, she proclaimed, with expressions of agreement from other Latin American states following suit. The Latvian delegation expanded upon this dilemma in highlighting that a universal definition could be grounds for an infringement of national sovereignty. In sum, the proposals in DISEC currently seek to define a complex issue, without adequately considering the realities and narratives of the diverse states present in the committee, which should be adjusted with haste if the committee seeks to reach a widely-accepted and implementable solution.

As Friday’s afternoon session comes to a close, delegates continue to waver between the prioritization of security over freedom of speech, while attempting to “define” the parameters of social media weaponisation in order to begin the process of combatting this new-age conundrum.


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