UN framework on countering violent extremism online is the need of the hour

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The dire repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, social relationships and the politics of countries around the world can be seen as normal when compared to the devastating effects of natural disasters, epidemics and wars throughout history in terms of the loss of human lives, the economic aftershocks, and the depletion of health and medical resources. For this reason, the material effects of COVID-19 remain relatively limited, albeit with some variance amongst countries[1].

Nonetheless, one should be aware that the psychological, moral and symbolic transformations—which have accelerated since the emergence of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020—have left marked scars on human existence, and deep cracks in individual and social relational networks. Indeed, human behaviour has undergone transformations because of the pandemic’s tremendous shock for both individuals and the structure of social relationships.

Amongst the changes that occurred at the very onset of the pandemic was the drastic decline in economic production systems with the closure of production units, the restriction of movement in a bid to slow the spread of the virus through quarantine and lockdown measures, and the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the United Nations (UN) on 11 March this year.

These changes have not only impacted economic and material production but also non-material production, such as creativity, the arts and entertainment.

However, compared to previous natural or human disasters, the first significant novel factor that is clear is the role played by the Internet and social media. Even as the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and livelihoods were being felt worldwide, there was a remarkable paradigm shift, with a steady increase in demand for new technologies, especially those related to the web and social media.

The use of the Internet has increased, primarily for the dissemination of updates relating to the virus spread, ways to combat it and protect human lives from its lethality, and the possible vaccines to eradicate the disease. Secondly, this strong growth has been related to not just the dissemination of information but to receiving updated information on the pandemic and, thirdly, to overcome the sudden deadly boredom that had resulted from stay-at-home orders.

While the setback that impacted material and non-material production chains was a bitter curse for individuals, groups, and small, medium and large-sized enterprises, the considerable boom experienced by the Internet sector was a blessing, a good omen, and a tremendous promise for telecommunications carriers and social networking companies who have benefited from this increasing demand and unprecedented interest in the use of these networks. These large companies have thus accumulated astronomical financial figures from earnings generated by web users. For instance, a new report by research firm Global Market Insights predicts that the videoconferencing industry is projected to grow to US$50 billion by 2026 from US$14 billion in 2019[2].

Questions may be asked of the nature of the topics that dominated the discussions in social media rooms, and the type of topics, films and programmes that have been popular during this pandemic. Was the use of social networks limited to publishing or making inquiries related to the pandemic in addition to filling the void caused by quarantine measures that compelled people to stay at home?

With the increase in demand for internet services, and owing to the sheer volume and diversity of the issues that are raised on social media, there has also been noticeable interest in certain topics that are considered highly dangerous, such as extremism and terrorism.

This increased focus on topics with violent content presents a challenge to the ruling elite in terms of the real-world consequences to this steady rise of extremist rhetoric, with all its dangerous implications. The sharp rise in extremist rhetoric threatens those countries that are built on the substantive elements of multilingualism, multiculturalism and religious pluralism. Hence, instead of being a source of enrichment for these countries, this diversity can be exploited to bring about unrest and violence. A recent report by the UN on ‘The Impact of the Pandemic on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Countering Violent Extremism has identified the factors that have provided short-term opportunities for terrorist groups to indoctrinate and recruit more members[3]. These factors include a captive audience, such as the one billion students no longer in full time education; a fertile ground for integrating COVID-19 into the narratives of terrorist groups by spreading conspiracy theories against minority groups, governments and other authorities; and an opportunity to use the pandemic as a means to ramp up the social services provided by terrorist groups in areas where the state’s presence is already weak or contested.

At the release of the UN Report ‘COVID-19 and Human Rights: We are all in this together’[4], UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that “the virus is having a disproportionate impact on certain communities through the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response”[5]. In the face of this danger, the ruling elite who monopolise decision-making are expected to kick into gear to set up the legal arsenal needed to counter extremism and violence on social media. This legal arsenal is likely to protect societies and ensure the cohesion of nations.

Even as the growth of violent and extremist content online continues to concern governments and security institutions, there has also been a marked interest in issues related to civil and universal rights and liberties. There is a growing trend of using internet networks to raise issues related to rights and freedoms. For instance, the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US saw a surge of (almost immediate) support on social media platforms across all countries. Earlier, it would have taken weeks before news of the struggle reached distant shores, with only official news channels and newspapers providing information on it.

In many countries, political regimes have exploited, for ulterior motives, the extraordinary powers and measures adopted to stem the spread of the virus, such as restricting the freedoms of human rights activists. In this respect, international organisations have reported marked setbacks to the rights that were, until recently, an intrinsic and unquestioned part of citizens’ lives. The recent report submitted by UN Human Rights Council President Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger to Guterres reviewed a significant part of such violations, and reiterated the need to speed up the development of a UN Charter to protect human rights and social media activists[6].

Notably, the enactment of an international law to protect internet users has constantly been rejected for over 15 years. The prevalence of extremist and violent rhetoric, the confiscation of rights and freedoms, and the crackdown on social media activists are occurring in the absence of an international law that protects the rights of media users.

With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the early 21st century, the merging of the real and virtual worlds was already ongoing. The pandemic has only compressed timelines and accelerated this trend. It is, therefore, imperative that we set up a normative framework to address important issues that arise online but manifest in the real world with dire consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic and the digital revolution have proven to be an adverse force multiplier for the rise of violent extremism and for the repression of citizens’ rights by states who are (over)utilising the extraordinary powers granted to them to tackle the public health crisis.

This then begs the question—will states be willing to let go of these overarching and overreaching powers once the pandemic is over? It is here that international institutions like the UN must play a role in protecting human rights beyond the real world into the virtual. In a bid to counter violent extremism online, states must not resort to using heavy-handed security measures that adversely impact the rights of their citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a static document destined to be rendered obsolete by the ravages of times; it must evolve to meet the needs of a new 21st century reality. The UN must lead the charge in setting up a normative framework that will not only protect human rights in the real and virtual worlds, but also strengthen the rules-based order and lead the way towards a new era of freedom post-COVID-19.


Endnotes 

[1] “Making Better Decisions In Global Health: Understand Positive Outliers To Inform Policy And Practice”, Exemplars. Health.

[2] Preeti Wadhwani and Saloni Gankar, “Video Conferencing Market Size By Component (Hardware [Multipoint Control Unit (MCU), Codecs, Peripheral Devices], Software [On-Premise, Cloud], Service [Professional, Managed]), By Type (Room-Based, Telepresence, Desktop), By Application (Corporate Enterprise, Education, Government, Healthcare), Industry Analysis Report, Regional Outlook, Growth Potential, Competitive Market Share & Forecast, 2020 – 2026”, Global Market Insights, Inc., May 2020. .

[3] “The Impact Of The COVID-19 Pandemic On Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism And Countering Violent Extremism”, United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, June 2020.

[4] “COVID-19 and Human Rights, We are all in this together”, United Nations, April 23, 2020.

[5] António Guterres (@antonioguterres), April 23, 2020.

[6] David Kaye, “Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression – Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression” United Nations, April 23, 2020.

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