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Digital Troubleshooting | The Day After COVID-19

A digital exploration journey that aims to address challenges and opportunities where digital technologies can troubleshoot and generate progress in.

The topics 
1. Democracy and Social Engagement
2. Truthseeking and Disinformation
3. Privacy and Surveillance

Watch the Virtual Discussion:  

Panel 1: Democracy and Social Engagement Alarm

During the first panel of the digital conference, we discussed COVID-19, the global decline in democracy, and the impact of digital technologies on social and democratic movements.

  • Democratic decline was enabled by digital technology.
  • Telecom and surveillance made the control possible.
  • Protests used digital tools to organize and act.
  • Deepfakes, artificial intelligence, and data surveillance were used to identify individuals.
  • Need for effective response.
  • Authoritarian regimes and dictatorships have benefited from COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 gave boost on mobilizing people.
  • Think out of the box and face the situation as a fact.
  • Activists should work to engage people.
  • Need for a system organized around communication, to promote citizens’ engagement.

Democracy is in a decline worldwide; less and less countries are democratic which was enabled by digital technology. Before, governments were not able to impose total control, but now due to telecom and surveillance, their control became possible. Governments use social networks to manipulate disorganized protests, but activists learned how to share digital technology, to be more cautious and anonymous. Misleading ideas are a problem with great roots; Russia and China especially during the pandemic increased their influence through spreading disinformation. There is a whole range of tactics and procedures used to attack democratic institutions. During the pandemic, internet had broadened the anonymity and ambiguity and social media damage. Digital threat through the pandemic became more and more important, the anxiety level has been intensified, and the trust on politicians, decision makers, and institutions has weakened. Some people exploited this situation to gain money from advertising, affecting democracy, for example deepfakes, artificial intelligence, and data surveillance programs used by the Chinese Communist party to identify individuals.

Across the world authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships used their dominance and their power on the control of the internet to surveil people and to prevent social activists from speaking out. “In Ethiopia, activists used different social media groups to counteract and to be organized”, says Teffera Teffera, Journalist from Ethiopia. During COVID-19, protests have been transferred on digital platforms enhancing communication and young peoples’ participation. Also, the mobilization of people has increased during COVID-19. People were less active from one side, but on the other hand were very eager to act, while governments increased surveillance. On social engagement, it’s important to think out of the box and to see the situation as a fact and not as a victim. Telegram in authoritarian regimes was used by activists to communicate as a safe and secure tool for media and reporters to correspond. In Greece, even though it has a liberal democracy, people are doubting and don’t trust the institutions, media, government and society, as a result of the crisis we have faced. There is a need to create a system organized around communication and citizens’ engagement to inform policy decisions.

  • Christos Frangonikolopoulos, Professor of International Relations, Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Ahmed Samih, Director, Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, Egypt
  • Franak Viacorka,  Journalist, Activist, and Vice President of Digital Communication Network, Belarus.
  • Farai Monro, Satirist, Zimbabwe.
  • Alexey Minyaylo,  Activist and former political prisoner, Russia
  • Stefan Turkheimer, Political Consultant, United States
  • Teffera Teffera, Journalist, United States
  • Edward Lucas, Senior Fellow,  Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), United States

Panel 2: Truth seeking and disinformation alarm
In the second panel of the digital conference, we discussed the most recent trends in propaganda and misinformation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • China and Russia developed disinformation technics to gain power during the pandemic.
  • Censorship is becoming increasingly innovative and gaining popularity.
  • Need for censor-checking.
  • Games provide new ways and technics of combating disinformation.
  • Bad actors benefit from COVID-19 as it increases their power and strengthens their propaganda.
  • Need for governments, NGOs, and good actors to cooperate.
  • China, following the technics of Russia, organized massive disinformation with the European Union.
  • Great power competition during the pandemic.
  • Need to promote media literacy and truth narratives.
  • Encourage people to think critically and search for resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased disinformation and propaganda across the world in different ways. In some places it originated from the government, and in other places it originated from bad actors who want to gain money from advertising. It brings out the need to address disinformation and improve media literacy, so that civilians can be informed and can develop their fact-checking skills. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China, Russia, and other countries developed efficient ways of spreading disinformation.

Censorship is becoming increasingly innovative and is gaining popularity. In China there is a limited number of groups and people who are against the government and their account may disappear. From fact-checking news there is a need to turn to censor-checking. Gaming is becoming the new Facebook; through gaming we can teach people how to combat disinformation by putting newsrooms on a gaming platform. “We have to become sophisticated and to learn and understand psychological matters,” says Bob Pearson from The Next Practices Group, United States. Good actors need to do more in a way to help people by using open source tools - technology is advancing faster than we think. We tend to focus only on one area and we miss learning from other sectors. Countries realize the combination of cyber and disinformation as a new threat. During the pandemic, China adopted Russian technics on spreading disinformation in Europe, and the massive spread of strategic disinformation from members of the Chinese government related to the pandemic has led China to try to deflect the blame and depict China as the saver of Europe.

“During the pandemic has been developed a great power competition in Greece by several different disinformation campaigns,” says Cynthia Harvey from the U.S. Embassy in Athens. There is a need of supporting anti-disinformation efforts, to teach people how to counteract disinformation, think critically and search for resources. Cooperation is important for defeating the problem, and the pandemic highlighted the need of transparency. “India has faced disinformation related to COVID-19 from China, especially videos and images were dominant. Fact-checks are changing through these months from COVID-19 related issues to bot national and international issues,”says Jency Jacob from Boom Fact Check, India.

Eurasia is a region hit by disinformation through the last years, but now we have better systems in regional and global level on combatting disinformation. On the same time, journalists are struggling to address disinformation, even with basic things. During the pandemic, governments and organizations were better prepared, but the general population had to deal with disinformation. “People don’t have the basic idea on where to go to fight disinformation, so it’s important to develop fact-checking capacities. We need to bring progress to disinformation organizations and the ecosystem of newsrooms where fact-checking can thrive in a public sense and skill,” says Maksym Eristavi from Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, United States. “In Brazil, we face disinformation doubting science and good public policy while pandemic and scientists are being questioned all of the time by bad actors, usually are connected with federal government. Government, also, is pushing disinformation to the population,” says Chico Mares from Agencia Lupa, Brazil.

  • Chico Mares, Journalist, Agencia Lupa , Brazil
  • Maksym Eristavi,  Research Fellow,Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, United States
  • Jency Jacob, Managing Editor, Boom Fact Check, India
  • Cynthia Harvey, Public Affairs Officer,U.S. Embassy Athens in Greece
  • Jakub Janda,Director, European Values Center for Security Policy, Czech Republic
  • Bob Pearson,  Founder and Chair, Next Practices Group, United States

Panel 3: Privacy and Surveillance Alarm

During the third panel of the conference, we discussed the impact of COVID-19 on digital rights.

  • Increased use of surveillance technology.
  • Need for protection of human rights and freedom of speech and communication.
  • 5G is a new whole system starting from new open core, interfaces and exposure of APIS.
  • COVID-19 has changed the way we work and how digital disinformation is delivered.
  • 5G is bringing enhanced security protocols and can offer you personalized connectivity.
  • Operators are responsible for security and digital protection.
  • Enhanced opportunities for violation of privacy and restriction of expression.
  • Use of technology to monitor quarantine routine.
  • Increase in online attacks on journalists and political activists.
  • Need to re-establish a way of protecting data.

COVID-19 has increased the use of the Internet; as a result, there are a lot of concerns about data protection and surveillance by governments or companies. In many countries, data is being exploited by governments, and activists are concerned about human rights and freedom of communication and speech. On the other hand, 5G will be bring innovation and different aspects and facilities to our daily life. While countries worldwide are fighting the pandemic, including using surveillance technology, some have restricted fundamental human rights, including freedom of communication and movement.

The perception of 5G for many people is that we are developing a new radio interface, new open core, and exposure of APIs. 5G will provide enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine-type communication and Internet of Things (IoT) in cities or in houses. “Every time we introduced a new connection, we had changes only in interfaces; now we are introducing a new open interface, a new core network, a guaranteed service, based on the quality of algorithms”, says Konstantinos Halkiotis from Deutsche Telecom 5G in Germany. 5G is bringing enhanced security protocols integrating GDPR standards and security. The operators worldwide are building their networks with multiple suppliers, so they are responsible for security and digital protection. 5G is enhancing our opportunities; new applications, an open environment with open interfaces, AR and VR applications, and another security environment can be built. People are more open now, and they are often not worried about data and personal data security; this pandemic crisis has caught humanity without the right weapons. 5G can offer you personalized connectivity, a personalized connection with much higher quality.

5G brings with it enhanced opportunities for violation of privacy and restriction of expression, and we may be entering an era where mass surveillance tools are normalized. “There are concerns about the rushed process and the need for transparency while sensitive data are being used for enforcement or for advertisement”, says Gabrielle Guillemin from Article19 in United Kingdom. It’s hard for governments in Central Asia to handle and people don’t feel safe, especially in cases where the government is surveilling. In Azerbaijan, there is an increasing number of attacks online on journalists, YouTubers and political activists and an increasing number of copyright violation records. The government is responsible for the copyright violation, and there is a general lack of awareness of what is happening and of online harassment.

  • Marc Vrijhof, Chairman of European Association of Data Protection Professionals, Netherlands.
  • Arzu Geybulla, Columnist, Blogger and Journalist, Azerbaijan.
  • Anna Gusarova, Expert, Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies, Kazakhstan.
  • Gabrielle Guillemin, Senior Legal Officer at Article19, United Kingdom.
  • Konstantinos Halkiotis, Vice President of Deutsche Telecom 5G, Germany.

*Key points by Ioanna Georgia Eskiadi.