A warning from Brazil; Russia loses billions in internet shutdowns

Natalia Antelava

 

2023 kicked off disinformation-fueled rage in Brazil, which has already been dubbed Brazil’s “January 6 moment” and a “copy and paste” of Trump’s playbook. Rioters who ransacked the Oscar Niermayer-designed National Congress building and other buildings in Brasília were, in large part, mobilized by disinformation alleging that a “fraudulent” electronic voting system cost Jair Bolsonaro victory in the October 2022 presidential election. Bolsonaro left the country for Florida, denying any involvement in the rioting. But can he effectively distance himself from his own supporters and the disinformation he played a major role in spreading before the election? Brazil’s Aos Fatos, a fact-checking site, highlighted dozens of posts on social media calling for violence and urging protesters to storm government buildings (here’s a useful round up of their findings in English from Rappler). Facebook and Youtube failed to prevent election disinformation being spread on their platforms in Brazil, according to a Global Witness investigation. The violence may have been quelled, but the Guardian argues that “it’s not over yet.”

2023 will be a big election year: Turkey, Poland, Ukraine, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Thailand and possibly Pakistan and Myanmar — this is just the start of a long list of countries going to the polls this year. In all of these elections, local rivalries and politics will be played out on global social media platforms which — as Brazil proved — continue to be unable to abide by their own guidelines against violent content and voter fraud allegations. Instead, social media platforms are proving to be a boon for populists, authoritarians and their violent followers. Not even Canada is immune.

So is tech better for dictators than it is for democracy? Our team spent much of 2022 trying to answer this question in a podcast series called Tech, Tyrants and Us. Reported from across the world, it is Coda’s first collaboration with Audible and it’s now out! Check it out and tell us what you think.

And the winner is… Russia. As the Kremlin intensified its bombing of Ukraine through the holiday season, it also made sure to violently crush any internal criticism. The Kremlin’s approach to dissent is typified by its willingness to shut down the internet at severe cost to the country. This fascinating study of every major internet shutdown by a national government calculates their economic impact annually. 

Russia, according to the report, lost $21.5 billion (!) dollars for internet shutdowns in 2022 alone that have lasted 7,407 hours and affected 113 million people.  

This puts Russia way ahead of the other countries on the list. Iran came in second with an estimated $730 million in losses, followed by Kazakhstan with a comparatively modest $410 million. 

Overall, the economic cost of internet shutdowns in 2022 is up a whooping 323% from 2021. 

It’s not just about money. Internet blackouts also cost lives. When Kazakhstan hit the so-called “kill switch” last year, it fueled fear, panic and even deaths. But as Katia Patin reported for Coda at the time, thousands of people were able to get online thanks to a crusading band of expat technologists. As more governments reach reflexively for the kill switch, lessons from Kazakhstan will become ever more relevant as a counter.

WHAT WE’LL BE WATCHING IN EARLY 2023 

In Latin America: the growing popularity of Russian narratives across the region. RT en Español is now the third most shared domain on Twitter for Spanish-language posts about the war in Ukraine, according to an analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory. There are similar patterns in Africa, too, where RT is aggressively expanding its teams and audiences. Russia’s deliberate policy of focusing its soft power and propaganda efforts on audiences outside the West is bearing fruit. 

In Russia: the continuous crackdown on all forms of dissent and the search for ways to punish those who have left Russia since its invasion of Ukraine last year. The most recent initiative is a draft proposal in the State Duma to confiscate real estate belonging to people who have left since the war began. 

In Nicaragua: the case against a prominent Catholic bishop and critic of the longtime Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega is going to trial after Nicaraguan authorities accused him of spreading fake news. He’s one of dozens of priests who have been arrested in recent years and one of eight priests accused of spreading fake news. 

In the Philippines: the case against Coda’s editorial partner Rappler and its president, Nobel laureate Maria Ressa (full disclosure: Maria also serves on Coda’s Board of Directors). The case against Rappler has dragged on since 2018, when the government, then led by strongman Rodrigo Duterte, attempted to silence Rappler by accusing them of various forms of tax fraud. Now a court in Manila is set to rule in the case against Rappler and Ressa this week, a ruling which is bound to have ramifications for press freedom in the country and beyond.

In Poland: the situation along the Belarusian border, where the migrant crisis continues, fueled by growing Polish authoritarianism, the war in Ukraine and fake news. Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza has put together a running list of disinformation narratives spread by Polish border police on the crisis. The main themes are:

  • accusing activists of hiding migrants and not disclosing their whereabouts (which is now illegal),
  • lying about the people migrating and
  • trying to argue that most of the migrants are men, when in fact many women and children are crossing the border.

Wyborcza’s list includes disturbing accounts of the police assuring activists that migrants who needed medical treatment would be given care, when in reality they were taken to the forest and pushed across the border back into Belarus. 

DON’T MISS 

  • How to stand up to a dictator”: Maria Ressa’s new book, in which she brilliantly captures the real-life effects of invisible disinformation networks that envelop the globe. I am halfway through and love it. 
  • The invention of Russia,” a brilliant podcast by Misha Glenny and his producer Miles Warde. They nail it on Russian imperialism and why so many of us still can’t get our heads around it. (Another full disclosure: I make a cameo appearance.)
  • Undercurrents: Tech, Tyrants and Us”: Coda’s first narrative podcast reported from all around the world.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.