Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Code and coercion: when the internet is used as a weapon of the state

The internet was supposed to set us free, yet governments across Asia have used online platforms to stifle individual liberty, writes Youngmi Kim

Until very recently, the internet and social media have been regarded, uncritically, to be tools that empower individuals. It is believed that they help to advance freedom of speech, political participation, and direct democracy. Now, however, social media is at the epicentre of a political thunderstorm defined by fake news, hate speech, privacy breaches, and trolling – all of which seem to be features of democratic and non-democratic countries alike.

Much attention has been drawn to the US presidential campaign and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but Asia – despite receiving far less attention in this regard – has not escaped scandals and questions about the impact of the digital realm on freedom of speech, privacy, but also social harmony cohesion and trust in state institutions.


There has been an assumption over recent years, perhaps a naïve one, that the internet is good for individuals and good for freedom. However, examples in Asia show that states, authoritarian and non-authoritarian, have also acquired strong digital skills, enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities that advancements in technology offers them.

Top-down state-led internet activism takes a variety of forms. China has long resorted to DDOS (distributed denial of service), internet censorship – the ‘great firewall’ – and control of social media. Russia seems to have mastered the art of trolling. For a long time the Chinese Communist party has been notorious for running a so-called ’50 cents party’. The authorities recruit commentators to upload positive comments towards the CCP’s policies and activities, paying them 50 cents of a US dollar for their comments. While the term ‘50 cents party’ is used as a derogatory term towards people who are pro-CCP, this was a sign of the Chinese government being an ‘early adopter’ of the possibilities that the internet offered authoritarian governments.

Yet this is not just a phenomenon reserved to Russia and China. Examples from two other Asian nations well illustrate the ability of governments to misuse digital tools – raising broader questions about the use of the internet and its impact.

Scandals engulfing successive South Korean presidencies

South Korea well illustrates how technology can strengthen a country’s democracy by increasing participation and accountability. South Korea is the world’s most wired society. Its history of online activism goes back to the Roh Moo-hyun presidential campaign of 2002, when young campaigners effectively pushed former human rights lawyer Roh to the presidency. More recently, months-long candlelight vigils in 2016 and 2017 were aided by social media – mobilising Korean citizens against then president Park, accused of an influence-peddling scandal.

However, before that, there was an example of internet manipulation on the part of authorities. The administration of disgraced former president Park Geun-hye, now in jail awaiting trial, suffered a significant blow after it emerged that her presidential campaign had been aided by National Intelligence Service (NIS) members, who posted positive comments in blogs and news sites and targeted then opposition candidate Moon Jae-in during the presidential campaign period in 2012. Violation of multiple laws led to relentless protests in central Seoul for years, and eventually to multiple arrests of several of the individuals involved.

The current Moon Jae-in administration is not free of scandals, either. In the midst of a thaw in North-South relations, the opposition has accused the Moon government of misleading public opinion by applying a software to engineer multiple ‘likes’ on favourable news headlines, via Facebook and other social media platforms. The influential bloggers who used this software are under investigation, and this certainly undermines the present administration’s reputation and possibly its legitimacy.

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Nationalism and online hate speech in Myanmar

In a tragically different context, several thousand miles south west, hate speech has dominated Myanmar’s online discussion following the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya population. Vitriolic language and crude images have been used online, to the extent that Facebook has been forced to intervene.

Since the government began, unexpectedly and swiftly, through a process of political liberalisation in 2011, Myanmar’s authorities have received much praise internationally. The 2016 parliamentary elections were landmark events, and they witnessed a landslide victory by the long-time opposition party National League for Democracy, which subsequently formed a government.

The 2017 Rohingya crisis emerged when the armed forces responded to a wave of terrorist attacks with unprecedented brutality. This led to one of the world’s largest refugee crises, and has cast a long shadow on the current Myanmar administration. Apart from the violence on the ground, strong nationalism and anti-Rohingya sentiments have proliferated among Facebook users and on other social media platforms. This, in a way, was not unexpected: anti-Rohingya hate speech, often bordering on Islamophobia, is regrettably widespread in the country, where the 1.3 million predominantly Muslim Rohingyas are considered as illegal Bengali immigrants. Pretty gruesome photos and videos, some genuine but many fake, have dominated social media in Myanmar, to the point that Facebook has been forced to respond by blocking users who were fomenting hate speech. Placing the company in a conundrum and exposing the limits of the debate on free speech, Facebook also came under pressure to erase pro-Rohingya campaigns as well, with a high risk of conflating human rights campaigns with more radical groups.

As different as these two cases across Asia are, they are stark reminders that we are far away from the days when internet activism was widely and uncritically acclaimed as a tool for open debate and political participation. More sobering, and realistic, assessments must therefore be made to ensure that the internet fulfils its original mission: to enhance democracy and freedom.


Dr Youngmi Kim is a senior lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh


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Youngmi Kim

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